Easy Rider: Gemma Thompson of Savages Goes Behind Her Score for “Along for the Ride”
The Savages guitarist walks us through the making and spirit of her score for Nick Ebeling’s new Dennis Hopper documentary.
As the landscape of the film industry continues to be turned on its head, the rules of independent cinema have remained consistent in one key way: Make a movie that finds eyeballs and turns a profit, and you’ll get to make another—probably, with a bigger budget. After Moonlight, Barry Jenkins has a TV series and a James Baldwin adaptation on the horizon. Sean Baker, who shot his breakout Tangerine on iPhones, is receiving near-unanimous critical acclaim for his latest film, The Florida Project. With surprise success comes the opportunity for more. This model can be traced all the way back to indie film’s heydey, when Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda came motoring across the screen with Easy Rider in 1969. Made for $400,000 and grossing $60,000,000 worldwide at the box office, the Hopper-directed hippie flick gave the actor/filmmaker his options for a follow-up. He chose to pursue a passion project, The Last Movie, which is now being recounted in Nick Ebeling’s documentary on the star and his assistant, Satya de la Manitou, titled Along for the Ride.
Ebeling infuses the documentary with flashy artistic decisions to keep the viewer engaged—utilizing black and white cinematography, reenacted scenarios, and a consistent breaking of the fourth wall—but his wisest creative choice was in employing Gemma Thompson to score the film. With her main band, Savages, Thompson hammers her guitar, creating a blend of chaos and catharsis that is one of the chief catalysts for the band’s refreshing take on punk. With Along for the Ride, however, Thompson sheds this weight significantly, adding a haunting subtlety to the film that lingers long after the final credits roll.
Thompson’s role in the film was brief, yet immeasurably impactful. Despite recording the entire score in three days with nothing more than a minimal set-up, the guitarist lends her innovative playing to the film, enhancing her featured scenes with layers of reverb, gorgeous soundscapes, and melodies that stick.
Composing a score for a documentary is a tricky prospect, and Along for the Ride in particular presents multiple potential hazards to navigate. The film places a heavy reliance on conversational testimonials between de la Manitou and Hopper’s peers. Thompson’s job is to enhance these conversations without overshadowing the words being spoken. Ebeling also makes a nice choice by including songs from the era, helping to establish the tone of the world Hopper was a part of. But because of this, Thompson had to create a score that allows these songs to breathe and fit within the context of her work.
Thompson’s score gives the film an edge and atmosphere, a sense of otherworldliness that was both a stimulus for Hopper’s creativity and a contributing factor to his loneliness and isolation that led to a downward spiral. Although he eventually recovered and revitalized his career, Along for the Ride is as interested in exploring where, exactly, Hopper fell off his path—if he was even following one to begin with. We had Thompson answer questions about preparing for a film score, Akira Kurosawa, and her favorite musical moments in film.
FAVORITE FILM COMPOSER?
I’ve always been a big fan of Akira Kurosawa. Masaru Sato did a lot of the soundtracks for his films. My favorite is Throne of Blood, which is Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth. That’s a very disturbing soundtrack [laughs]. That’s one of my favorites.
There’s actually a soundtrack I’ve been listening to a lot, but I haven’t seen the film. I feel like I don’t have to see the film. Miles Davis does the score for [Louis Malle’s] Elevator to the Gallows. It’s absolutely beautiful. I don’t want to see the film because the music conjures enough in my mind that I don’t want to see any images with it. It’s the perfect work.
WHAT’S YOUR PREPARATION FOR A FILM SCORE?
This was the first time I’d been asked to do anything like this, and I was super excited about it. I started speaking with Nick [Ebeling] and gathering his energy about the project. His energy is absolutely amazing. I was touring with Savages in the US at the time, and instead of going back home, I decided to stay in LA for a while. We did the entire thing in three days at a studio in East LA. The main importance in the documentary is the storytelling, so I wanted to create a really subtle layer that could be revisited. I set up a lot of small vintage guitar amps in a semi-circle and had three or four guitars set up in a change. They were all prepared in different ways. We had a projector in front and just projected the footage in front of me. We did the scenes over and over again.
REFERENCES FOR ALONG FOR THE RIDE?
FAVORITE DENNIS HOPPER FILM?
My main knowledge of Dennis Hopper is [actually] through his photography. Years back in London, he had an exhibition at the Royal Academy. I knew him from Easy Rider, but knew nothing about The Last Movie at all. But I knew a lot about his photography. Nick had me watch The Last Movie, which was another reference for the score. After I watched the film, it opened up a new doorway for my understanding of Dennis Hopper and what he was trying to do and explore.
FAVORITE SOUNDTRACK SONG IN A FILM?
In Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, Christina Ricci does a tap dance scene in a bowling alley that I’m really obsessed with. They use “Moonchild” by King Crimson and it’s just a really weird scene that starts with bowling alley noises—pins and voices. She steps away to a pillar and the sounds fade away and she starts tap dancing to the song.
WHAT SAVAGES SONG SHOULD BE USED IN WHAT FILM?
I’d probably choose “T.I.W.Y.G.,” but I don’t know of any movie it could fit in [laughs].
FAVORITE SCENE TO SCORE IN ALONG FOR THE RIDE?
This might sound macabre, but I really enjoyed the very end when the camera focuses on the headstone. I did some feedback work on that. Seeing this documentary was a revelation to me in terms of Dennis Hopper, in his search for something beyond fame. I wanted it to be a positive, uplifting ending. FL