Penelope Spheeris’s punk rock western “Dudes” was dubbed the “Easy Rider of the Eighties”

By on July 2, 2018

Penelope Spheeris’s Dudes (1987) — highlighted in this special episode of “Night Flight Goes to the Movies,” which originally aired on July 8, 1988 — is a somewhat forgotten but simply unforgettable punk rock western, dubbed “The Easy Rider of the Eighties.”

Watch excerpts from Dudes — which starred Jon Cryer, Daniel Roebuck (“Samson ‘John’ Tollet” from River’s Edge), Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and featured Catherine Mary Stewart, Fear’s Lee Ving, the Gears’ Axxel G. Reese, and the Doors’ John Densmore — tonight on Night Flight Plus!

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Dudes opens with “Grant” (Cryer) stage-diving as the Vandals play “Urban Struggle” (which starts off “I want to be a cowboy!”)

Later, he and “Biscuit” (Roebuck) — named after the late Randy “Biscuit” Turner of Austin, TX skate-punkers the Big Boys — and “Milo” (Flea) are sitting around a Chinese restaurant which reminded us a lot of downtown L.A.’s Atomic Café (where we spent many a night, winding down from a night at Al’s Bar eating what my friends and I called “cha-cha” noodles).

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These cityslickers are all having existential meltdowns, waiting for the inevitable end of the world.

Then, Grant begins flirting with the late Pamela Gidley (“Elyse”) before her boyfriend, the “Road Warrior” (Peter Kent), eggs him into a fight.

The Queens/NYC trio figure they might have better luck on the left coast, as so many do, in the sun-kissed land of fruits, nuts and flakes (but then New Yorkers get here and end up bitching about our pizza and clogged freeways).

They begin their cross-country adventure in Grant’s blue Volkswagen Beetle, but just like the hippie bikers in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) dealt with shitkickers and shotgun-wielding rednecks, they end up making enemies with a band of gun-wielding outlaws, led by their sneering loudmouth leader “Missoula” (Ving).

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Dudes references Easy Rider a lot, in fact. There’s a desert diner scene where Grant and Biscuit end up in an unprovoked rednecks-versus-punks brawl, not to mention a similar campfire scene.

A VHS video release for Dudes even took one of the Easy Rider poster loglines and turned it into: “They were looking for the American Dream…They found the American Nightmare.”

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The trio are ambushed and robbed, and Milo ends up with a bullet in his skull.

Grant and Biscuit decide to track down Missoula and his gang of sadists to exact revenge, going from punk losers to cowboy heroes by the film’s last reel.

Along the way, they’ve swapped their Bug for a beat-up 1959 Buick Invicta with bull’s horns mounted to the hood and they meet a daredevil Elvis impersonator/rodeo clown and have visions of a ghost cowboy and American Indian warriors.

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Read more about Dudes and director Penelope Spheeris below.

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Screenwriter Randall Jahnson (sometimes Johnson) wrote Dudes in an attempt to capture some of the “cowpunk” energy in the L.A. punk scene in the early ’80s.

Back then, bands like Rank and File, Blood On the Saddle, the Knitters and others were channeling outlaw country icons and recording punked-up versions of songs like Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” (Wall of Voodoo covered that one, as well as the Morricone-penned theme to The Good, the Bad & the Ugly).

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Jahnson, writing about Dudes on his website, claimed:

“The notion of fatalistic urban punkers in a showdown with the vastness, beauty, and history of the American West amused and intrigued me. I placed the start of the story in New York City, so the journey of Grant, Milo, and Biscuit would echo the westward trek of pioneers in covered wagons.”

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Penelope Spheeris originally read Jahnson’s script for Dudes in March of 1986 and expressed interest.

At the time, she’d had some cult success with her L.A. punk documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), and already segued into narrative fiction films like Suburbia (1983), The Boys Next Door (1985), as well as the cop comedy Hollywood Vice Squad (1986), none of which were particular stand-outs at the box office.

After the film’s producers first tried to get Ridley Scott to direct, she was brought aboard the project.

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Production on Dudes began in mid-August 1986 in Queens, NYC, in Hollywood, CA, and the Vasquez Rocks area in Agua Dulce, California, north of L.A..

They also shot in and around several towns in Arizona — Cottonwood, Jerome and Flagstaff — as well as Four Corners, New Mexico, and in Utah, along U.S. Route 163 in Monument Valley.

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This was celebrated cinematographer Robert Richardson’s fourth feature.  He would later become the DP for Oliver Stone (Platoon and, later, The Doors), Martin Scorsese (The Aviator), Quentin Tarantino (the Kill Bill series).

Jon Cryer threw himself into the role of Grant, learning to drive (he hadn’t had much experience behind the wheel, being from NYC).

He also got his ear pierced, but the piercing became infected (writers on Cryer’s TV show “Two and a Half Men” sitcom later borrowed the idea).

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Dudes’ soundtrack features a zany punk/hair band mix, with music by the Vandals, Keel, Megadeth, Jane’s Addiction, W.A.S.P., Wall of Voodoo, Steve Vai and Faster Pussycat, among others.

Dudes premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 18, 1987, and finally opened in limited release in New York on June 24, 1988.

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Dudes was not given a release on DVD until Shout! Factory’s Shout Select brought out the title on DVD/Blu-ray in 2017.

Watch “Night Flight Goes to the Movies,” from July 1988 — which also features excerpted clips from License to Drive, Arthur 2: On the Rocks, Wall Street, and Siesta — on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.