In the early ’70s everything was going right for Kris Kristofferson. The country music world had embraced the hard-nosed singer-songwriter and covers of his songs – “Me and Bobby McGee”; “Help me get through the night”; “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” – had achieved crossover success.
By 1971 he was also climbing high on the Billboard charts as a solo artist, and by 1970 he had also made his first film, Cisco Pikes. The film wasn’t released until 1972, but it remains an incredible time capsule. As Kristofferson’s defunct musician — the eponymous Cisco Pike — strides alongside the murky canals of pre-gentrification Venice, Los Angeles looks a far cry from the millionaire’s playground it is today. Amid the grimy, seedy streets, the only thing that looks good in the film’s opening scenes is Kristofferson herself. The star is flawless in a chambray shirt, jeans and cowboy boots; his glossy auburn hair bobbing on brown suede-clad shoulders. Carrying a guitar case, Pike is a handsome mix of the buttery-yet-cheppy LA singer-songwriters just about to take over the world, from Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey of The Eagles to James Taylor.
But despite being directly plugged into the rock’n’roll zeitgeist, Cisco Pikes was a gigantic flop that failed at the box office and garnered a slew of bad reviews. It’s more cult than cult now, but back then The New York Times‘s Vincent Canby called it “banal,” adding scathingly that “it takes all my discipline not to leave the theater right away.” Watching it half a century later, I have a hard time understanding why the film caused so much revulsion, especially considering its fabulous and deeply cool cast, which also includes Gene Hackman, Harry Dean Stanton and Karen Black. Obviously, 1972 was too early to have a dapper drug dealer as the main character, and the raw and willing Los Angeles of wayward hippies, drug smokers, rock stars and groupies was still too much for some viewers to enjoy this fast-paced prank. You see, Kristofferson’s Pike isn’t just a former rock star, he’s being blackmailed by Hackman’s devious cop into selling a hell of a lot of weed.
Follow the slipstream of American new wave cinema, led by the 1967s Bonnie & Clyde and 1969s Simple rider, Cisco Pikes came from a new generation of young filmmakers – pikeAmong them Bill L. Norton, who first directed at twenty – bringing his unconventional ideas to the big screen, influenced by European art-house cinema and striving to tell stories relevant to his generation.
In less than an hour and a half Cisco Pikes Leaning on the lighter side of such innovative filmmaking, it adds a noiric touch through super stylish shots of Pike driving through LA while Neon whizzes by. Kristofferson’s Pike remains extremely likable as he invades every walk of life to move his illegal bounty into scenes reminiscent of HBO’s hipster drug dealer comedy High maintenance, which would arrive nearly half a century later. There’s also an odd familiarity to the film’s sets, with the Venice Beach apartment that Pike and his girlfriend share being a fabulous jumble of kitschy junk shop finds, hanging plants and artisanal pottery. The look is very 2022 Interior Design Instagram, as is Pike’s penchant for western shirts, the country uniform favored by contemporary musicians from Orville Peck and Charley Crockett to Harry Styles and Diplo.
Cisco Pikes was not only Norton’s first feature film, but also the first to star Kristofferson. He had already filmed a small role in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Moviebut it would not be officially released until eight years after Hopper’s death in 2018. And while he might not have had much screen experience, by 1970 Kristofferson had done more than his fair share of life.
Born in Texas in 1936, Kristofferson was not only a gifted athlete but also a published writer. He won a hotly contested Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied English literature, and it was around this time that he began writing songs. But instead of pursuing a music career, he joined the US Air Force to appease his family. After a few years in the military in Germany, he moved to Nashville to get serious about the music thing. So serious that he landed a helicopter in Johnny Cash’s front yard to convince the star to record his song “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” It worked, getting Kristofferson out of his job as a janitor at Columbia Records and earning him the 1970 Songwriter of the Year title at the Country Music Association Awards. That same year, Kristofferson’s occasional lover, Janis Joplin, recorded his track “Me & Bobby McGee,” which would become a hit months later, after Joplin’s untimely death.
It was also the year that Kristofferson was first spotted for the big screen. His first appearance at the legendary Los Angeles Troubadour venue impressed a whole crowd, including casting director Fred Roos, who thought it would be ideal for a road movie called Two-lane asphalt pavement. At a party at Jack Nicholson’s house, Roos asked Kristofferson if he wanted to audition. He agreed and went to the appointment the very next day. “I was drunk, it was straight out of a Kafka novel,” Kristofferson said Rolling Stone of the doomed casting call. “The guy said did I know anything about cars? Two-lane asphalt pavement it was about cars, only nobody told me that. I said, ‘Can’t even change a tire,’ got up and left.” Surprisingly, he didn’t get the job — James Taylor got it — but not long after he was offered the lead role Cisco Pikes.
“I’ve never been to a no-school theater, but I read the script and I identified with this cat, this drug dealer,” he recalled. “People said, ‘Don’t do it, take acting classes first!’ But it seemed to me that acting just has to mean understanding a character and then being as honest as you can be. I should have been scared, but then I should have been scared the first time on that troubadour stage, and I wasn’t.”
With his bassy voice, Kristofferson was perfect for the role, playing the kind of louche charmer who greets all women with a full kiss on the mouth. He was 34 at the time of filming and his music is also getting well-deserved airtime Cisco Pikes. There’s “Lovin’ Her Was Easier,” a slowly picked folk-rock ballad of the kind he gave Johnny Cash, and “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” both of which would end up on Kristofferson’s second album, The silver-tongued devil and me, which came out in 1971, six months before the film’s release. The film would have various working titles including Silver-tongued deviland also dealer, before the rather less boombastic Cisco Pikes agreed.
Karen Black, fresh from her Oscar nomination Five easy pieces but a few years before Robert Altman’s pointy-eyed country music extravaganza, NashvilleShe shines as Pike’s hippie friend Sue. Black can also flex her musical muscles in a sublime and all-too-brief duet with Kristofferson on I’d Rather Be Sorry, the full version of which would later be released breaking awayan album by Kristofferson and his partner Rita Coolidge.
The rest of the cast is flawless too. Gene Hackman is in his element as the slightly ridiculous corrupt detective in pastel gym clothes, while Harry Dean Stanton – billed as HD Stanton – post-Cool hand Luke and before-Paris, TexasAs a member of Pike’s band caught up in tough times and harder drugs, he’s instantly believable. In his first on-screen appearance, he’s sitting naked in a bathtub holding a ratty bouquet, but there are also light-hearted flashback scenes where we see him in his glory days, wowing the crowd and dating a gorgeous blonde drinking from the bottle.
There are memorable cameos from blaxsploitation star Antonio Fargas – who went on to play the charismatic Huggy Bear Starsky & Hutch — meets Pike at Olivia’s, the Santa Monica restaurant immortalized by Jim Morrison in The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen.” Wavy Gravy – fresh from host Woodstock – also makes an appearance, as does Tex-Mex rocker Doug Sahm, who plays Rex, a musician who, unlike Pike, has clung to his fame.
Warhol superstar Viva Hoffmann – mother of Transparent Actress Gaby Hoffmann – emerges as a blind and pregnant addict who stops by LA’s first-ever vegetarian restaurant, run by cult The Source Family, to pick up a mate. Later, we see her wealthy heiress at the family mansion, a lavish Hollywood home that was once the real-life residence of silent film sensation (and Rudolph Valentino’s mistress) Pola Negri. We meet Viva again at the Troubadour, where they have drinks in the front bar while Hare Krishnas enthusiastically sings outside. In a sweet moment of musical fortune-telling, a Waylon Jennings poster hangs on a wall outside the venue, unaware that a few years later, Kristofferson and Jennings would join forces with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to form country supergroup The Highwaymen.
In the years that followed, Kristofferson played memorable roles in Martin Scorsese Alice doesn’t live here anymore; as the infamous outlaw in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; and, most famously, alongside Barbra Streisand in the third big-screen version of A star Is Born.
Cisco Pikes captures the grimness of 1970s Los Angeles, but also the excitement. Here’s an LA where you go out for a quiet drink — or a simple drug-selling expedition — and end up romping around in a movie-star mansion. With Kris Kristofferson, too, there’s proof that it’s not years of practice that makes a movie star, but something far more magical.