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JAMES TAYLOR AND DENNIS WILSON RIDE 'TWO-LANE BLACKTOP'

year: 1971
During the early to mid 1960's, director Monte Hellman used great actors, from struggling no-names like Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton. He turned these potential firebrands into strategic paint strokes, filling his unique canvas: one of those American directors who seems “foreign” in style, and substance…

But when he finally got studio backing, after his low-budget Western double feature THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND were released in theaters after Nicholson's break in EASY RIDER, Hellman had the chance to put real actors in the cockpit of his most legitimate vehicle, and instead chose two musicians, neither very apt performers in this niche...

Poster Artwork
Thankfully, offsetting their monotone delivery, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is an ultra realistic venture with a documentary vibe (not template) with James Taylor and cool-grungy Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson. And the epitome of a ringer, bringing the nons to light while toning down his own powerful persona, is Warren Oates' character named after his car, GTO, and one of the strangest cats in cinema...

Warren Oates
Roaring down the highway in his yellow hot rod, and a different origin story to tell each hitchhiker, GTO's sites are on Taylor and Wilson's unnamed Driver and Mechanic in their grey 1955 Chevy, the quiet duo seeking illegal drag races with hometown heroes during various stopovers – one particular moment has The Doors groovy and tropical “Moonlight Drive” echoing throughout a busy boulevard, audibly setting the time and place yet visually turning the post psychedelic era back into the streamline 1950’s: With an ambiguous camera perspective from the back seat, the characters are as sparse as the dialogue, and every word spoken leads to the next scene, and race. The only personal drama sporadically unfolds between Driver and the ingenue, a fickle Hitchhiker whose novice acting chops are on par with Taylor’s...

Bird, Taylor & Wilson
Enter Laurie Bird, who, before her tragic suicide, would be far more loose playing Paul Simon’s girlfriend (who Tony Roberts lusts for) in the Woody Allen classic, ANNIE HALL. But like those early films with the talented actors and energetic performances, Hellman guides this show with a quick-cut editing that doesn’t make any particular scene last long enough to override the ultimate purpose...

Distance Covered: ****
The '55 Chevy cruising to each location: One quiet, reposeful scene has the foursome split in both cars, in the midst of the potentially dangerous South, and, having traded off... Oates shotgun with Taylor while Wilson rides Bird in the GTO… there’s a quiet and lovely dawn outside, providing a quaint, existential aura to this unique road-trip odyssey, as real as any motion picture gets.
Sure there's a plot, initially worked-out between GTO and the boys – a cross-country race to Washington D.C. for “pinks” (pink slips) adds a destination but remains peripheral… Especially in the teaming-up of the polar opposite camps, a business relationship leading to a big race, while the final frame sums up the point of the entire road adventure without a single word, or resolution: If, for instance, a James Caan or Burt Reynolds were cast, which were two names the studios supposedly wanted... and there were probably a lot more studied actors considered over non-acting musicians... BLACKTOP might not have worked at all. The viewer would expect something that wasn’t meant to be, forgetting the purpose is the wheel and not who and what's behind it.
Much of the film (albeit with Wilson by Taylor) is this backseat camera view in Two-Lane Blacktop
The GTO (driven by Warren Oates as GTO) in Two-Lane Blacktop
Warren Oates's GTO peeved that James Taylor would think he might get pulled over during their race
James Taylor and Warren Oates not smoking in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP
The cool Chevy in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP with Laurie Bird
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