This month is the 42nd anniversary of the release of this little gem of an outlaw biker flick, notable for being written by Jonathan Demme, and starring Scott Glenn and Gary Busey before they were stars. In fact, this was Busey’s first film role.
As is my general rule, I’ll not review this film as such–you can find an excellent review here—but I did want to try bring out some other maybe lesser known things about this film that might shed some different light on it. First, Demme, who was in the 1970s a protege of Roger Corman, describes this film as being done for Corman (p. 18-19) as very loosely based on Rashomon–the 1950 Kurosawa classic about the nature of guilt and how witnesses to the same events can have very different and conflicting interpretations of those events. The opportunity Corman gave Demme changed the 26-year-old Demme’s life by giving him a huge break, and he’s very grateful to Corman for having had the faith in him to take on this project.
Angels came out in 1971, near the end of the fad of “outlaw biker cinema” that moreorless started with The Wild One in 1953. According to Bill Ogersby‘s chapter in Underground USA: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon some movies in this sub-genre before Angels tended to romanticize the counter-culture aspects of the real life Hell’s Angels as a kind of anti-establishment icon. After the violence at the Altamont Free Concert where the brutality of Hell’s Angels members was on full display; this sad affair ended the naive fascination with the motorcycle club. Angels and a handful of other of the remaining post-Altamount biker films (such as: Satan’s Sadists ; Angels Die Hard ; Hell’s Bloody Devils ; The Hard Ride ; and The Jesus Trip ) exploited the violence of the Altamont tragedy by showing more violent depictions of bikers. None of these depictions was less violent than Angels as it portrayed a gang rape gone wrong, resulting in a woman’s death, and a rival MC leader (Charles Dierkop, who as it turns out also celebrates his birthday this month) sadistically punishing Scott Glenn and his band for the crime.
Turning to onset antics, Gary Littlejohn, who did the stunts for this film (and played “Piston”) gave an interview a few years back (for Brian Albright’s Wild Beyond Belief: Interviews with Exploitation Fimmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, p. 165) on working with Gary Busey on the latter’s first film. Apparently, the young 27-year-old Busey’s famous temper was already in place back then, and when he wasn’t turning in the performance (as a hippie leader) Demme wanted, Littlejohn bodyblocked Busey as he was carrying a bucket of water down a flight of stairs (off camera, presumably). Busey went off on Littlejohn (ahem) and his performances were markedly improved afterwards, and Busey and Littlejohn became friends after that.
Go find this film (at the above YouTube link, if nothing else), and love yourself some good later-period outlaw bikers. Then go back and watch the whole cannon, between episodes of the new season of Sons of Anarchy, which owes much to this film and this era of genre films.