A 40th anniversary restoration rescues a cult classic with loads of extras.
I first saw the 1980 film, “Out of the Blue,” on a grainy VHS tape rented from the Video Fan on Strawberry Street while I was still in high school. I remember being a little depressed by it, while also thinking it was a low budget mess. My how things change.
For most of its life this gritty flick was hard to find, but after a recent 4K-scan restoration championed by actresses Natasha Lyonne and Chloë Sevigny, the film looks better than it ever has on a new Blu-ray and DVD reissue. This time I found myself enjoying the brave improvisational acting and often laughing at the oddball writing and editing choices, which director and star Dennis Hopper later said were influenced by Abstract Expressionism and the video work of his friend, artist Bruce Conner. Critics called the movie a spiritual successor to Hopper’s early megahit, “Easy Rider,” showing how hippie utopianism often plunged into addiction and late ’70s nihilism. But I can only think of it as a coming-of-age, punk cult classic, as well as tomboy actress Linda Manz’ finest moment, which is plenty enough reason to check out the new restoration.
Some back story: The original project started out as an after-school TV special about incest being shot in Vancouver with tax shelter funds. The story featured a runaway teen played by spunky child actress, Manz (the memorable narrator who improvised her lines in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”) and starring Raymond Burr as her therapist. But when the original writer-director got fired two weeks into the production, that’s when things got really strange. Enter wild-eyed, Hollywood exile, Mr. Hopper, still in the throes of a serious drug-and-alcohol addiction of bejeezus belt dimensions – and not having directed since his underrated follow-up to “Easy Rider” that went largely undistributed, “The Last Movie”(1971).
If you don’t know much about Hopper, the guy was a talented still photographer with a great eye, had prophetic taste as an art collector, and could be a brilliant actor when focused, having come up with Brando, Newman and close mentor, James Dean. He was also a physically abusive drunk, and by this point known in Hollywood as a human train wreck, exhibiting a feral, almost Charlie Manson-like intensity throughout the ’70s (see “The American Dreamer” doc from ’71). Bemused director Richard Linklater tells a crazy story in the extras included here about going to an early ’80s screening of “Out of the Blue” in Houston, after which Hopper took a small crowd of attendees to a nearby rodeo. There he proceeded to perform the “Russian dynamite death chair act” stunt. This basically involved blowing himself up as he sat within the vacuum created by an explosion of six sticks of dynamite facing outward in a circle. A correspondent from Rice University described it memorably:
“Hopper, at one with the shock wave, was thrown headlong in a halo of fire. For a single, timeless instant he looked like Wile E. Coyote, frazzled and splayed by his own petard. Then billowing smoke hid the scene. We all rushed forward, past the police, into the expanding cloud of smoke, excited, apprehensive, and no less expectant than we had been before the explosion. Were we looking for Hopper or pieces we could take home as souvenirs? Later Hopper would say blowing himself up was one of the craziest things he has ever done, and that it was weeks before he could hear again.”
Anyway, Hopper was intrigued by the natural acting abilities of Manz, one of film’s great tomboys, so he manically rewrote the script over the weekend while listening to friend Neil Young’s album, “Rust Never Sleeps,” which is where the title comes from; the song “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” would also be quoted years later in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. By the time Hopper finished, the story was transformed into a bleak meditation on youthful alienation and the burgeoning punk rock ethos, with fuddy-duddy Burr’s part cut out almost entirely. Instead, now there were repeated, violent flashback scenes of a drunken Hopper, as Manz’ father, driving a semi-truck into a school bus full of howling children. Somehow Hopper managed to shoot and cut the film in around 10 weeks.
Manz plays CeBe, a street-smart young girl who acts tough to hide her insecurity and despair about her alcoholic, ex-con father, just released from prison for accidentally killing the school kids, and her junkie mom (Shannon Farrell). CeBe idolizes Elvis Presley and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols and chants mantras late at night into the otherworldly CB radio inside her dad’s mangled truck, saying things like “subvert normality” and “kill all hippies.” A juvenile delinquent, she roams the streets getting accosted while finding her sense of family within the blossoming punk scene, jamming along with real Vancouver punk/New Wave band, Pointed Sticks, who get a nice cameo. But there are also scenes in the film that are truly weird and disturbing; Hopper often appears to not be acting as he incoherently rambles, his eyelids half-open, or rages like King Lear in too-close scenes with Manz that can feel like revelatory improvisation exercises by method actors.
As a director, Hopper shows his underlying talent not only with the gritty photography but by displaying trust in his young actress to inhabit the part. The real power of “Out of the Blue,” comes from Manz’ disassociated performance, which feels utterly authentic. She would later say the role was very close to who she was as a person; she grew up on the streets of New York, her single mother working as a maid in the World Trade Center. Sadly, this would be her only lead role (as an adult, she had a supporting part in Harmony Korrine’s “Gummo”); yet she always showed great instincts and comedic timing, as well as the uncanny ability to express honest emotion onscreen, from rage and grief-stricken loneliness to the giddiness of childhood play. CeBe’s embroidered, jean-jacket looks like a perfect time capsule; it’s a shame nobody ever made a movie back then pairing Manz and Jackie Earle Haley, whose “Bad News Bears” character Kelly feels like a spiritual cousin to CeBe. Retired from acting and raising a family, Manz died from lung cancer in 2020.
Another thing that really jumped out this time was how much the film’s controversial closing scene [too explicit to describe here] foreshadows Hopper’s role as Frank Booth in the David Lynch masterpiece, “Blue Velvet.” It’s all right there. No wonder Hopper begged Lynch to give him the role of the psychotic killer, allegedly telling the director, “You have to let me play Frank Booth. I am Frank Booth!” It almost seems as if by dredging up his dark personal demons onscreen, which he already appears to be doing in “Out of the Blue,” Hopper managed to rediscover his acting muse, which led him to sober up and resurrect his career as one of the great villains in Hollywood history in “Blue Velvet.”
“Out of the Blue” competed for the Palme d’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, but mostly it became a VHS cult classic shared among friends for years. This new 4K Blu-ray restoration gives it the deluxe treatment. Not only does the cleaned-up, 35mm print look and sound exponentially better (Neil Young’s lonely solo music has rarely been used to better effect in a movie, aside from Jarmusch’s “Dead Man”) but there are over 15 hours of extra features included. Among these is a long, fascinating interview with Hopper conducted by Tony Watts in 1984; the 40th anniversary restoration premiere Q&A with Julian Schanbel, Natasha Lyonne and others; “Gone But Not Forgotten: Remembering Linda Manz,” a featurette featuring Lydia Lunch and Leif Garrett among others; a short film by original writer Leonard Yakir; a radio spot by Jack Nicholson, who called the film “a masterpiece;” extended interviews with admirers Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Philippe Mora, Schnabel and others, that look to have been filmed during the pandemic by videoconference; “Dealing with Demons,” Brian Cox on acting with Dennis Hopper; an interview with director Alex Cox (“Repo Man”); more interviews with 11 original cast and crew from the film – the list just keeps on going. It’s truly remarkable the wealth of content, which speaks volumes about the film’s influence. It’s nice to see one of the most memorable cult films of the ’80s finally get its due — and then some.