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Searching for Shakey
Profile by Peter Danielsson
This profile was written for
the magazine of "movie madness and video violence". It has been reproduced
here with the permission of the author.
Bernard Shakey, the man, the myth, the pioneer of expressionist home made
rock'n roll movies. A man who thought he could make a better world.
Profile by Peter Danielsson
"I first met [Bernard Shakey] in 1973, on a bus to San Luis, Obispo.
He plopped down in the seat next to mine. His eyes were dark,
sunken shadows below an Indian-like forehead.
'Hey', he said, 'Bernard Shakey'. We shook hands, and he began to
tell me that he was an amateur filmmaker, that he was working
on his first film and was a little nervous about it. 'Tough
business. I'd hate to go back to shooting Hyatt House commercials.' I turned
to look out the window, turned back around, and he was gone."
So describes director/critic Cameron Crowe (Singles) his strange encounter
with mythic filmmaker Bernard Shakey. Crowe is one of the lucky ones. Few
outside people has ever met Bernard Shakey in person and less know anything
about him at all. As told by Crowe above, he seems to have started his
career by making commercials and then turned to filmmaking, but that's
about all we know about him. The interviews that exsist are few and brief.
He has successfully hidden himself in the back, giving all the attention to
fellow Canadian Neil Young, the artist he is best know for working with. To
solve this mystery of one of America's most important unknown filmmakers,
we must go to his work. Only then can we approach an answer to our
question; who is Bernard Shakey?
In 1970 Bernard Shakey teamed up with actor Dean Stockwell, who had a
script he had written by himself called After the Goldrush, and Neil Young
who would do the music for it. It was about the day of a great earthquake
in Topanga Canyon when a great wave of water flooded the place. They tried
to get some money from Universal Pictures, but it fell through because it
was too much of an art project. "I think, had it been made it would stand
as a contemporary to Easy Rider and it would have had a similar effect. The
script itself was full of imagery, 'change'... It was very unique actually.
I really wish that movie had been made, because it could have really
defined an important moment in the culture", the proud but ultimately
disappointed director claimed. Young in turn had already written and
recorded the soundtrack, which was solely released and became a big
success. But the film never materialized.
It was at this time actor Dennis Hopper decided to take all the money he
had earned on Easy Rider and make his own dream project come true. He
collected a few of his friends, among them Shakey (uncredited) as well as
Kris Kristofferson, Samuel Fuller, Dean Stockwell, etc, and started filming
The Last Movie. The movie to almost end all other movies, at least for
Hopper, who, true to his image of the time, wasted all his money on drugs.
In 1973 Shakey, a born optimist, formed his own production company, Shakey
Pictures, a sort of dream-team long before Spielberg/Geffen's DreamWorks,
with Fred Underhill (producer of the Woodstock movie), David Myers
(Renaldo and Clara) and L.A Johnson (The Last Waltz).
Their first project was what was to become the first Shakey masterpiece, the
disastrous Journey Through the Past.
In the film Richard Lee Patterson plays a character named Graduate.
Dressed in cap and gown, he is beaten senseless and dropped off in the
desert. There he encounters various images, like a junkie shooting up,
Jesus Freaks on Hollywood boulevard and senior Nazis. It's a journey
through a declined America in search for some difficult truths. Shakey
himself is quoted to have said: "It's a collection of thoughts. Everything
means something to me - although with some of it I can't say what." To
this day moviegoers around the world are arguing about what the film is
The film failed to attract any audience to speak of, it got banned in
England because of its offending images and has yet to re-appear anywhere
but on bootleg copies. Janelle Ellis of the Rolling Stone magazine, who was
one of the lucky who got to seet it, called it "morbidly drawn-out",
while Bob Porter of the Dallas Times wrote it off to be
"of value primarily to those searching souls looking for a view of the
outside world from the inside of the hectic, confused and confusing
world of rock music."
So, was this the end to a brilliant a career that hadn't even began? Not
so. It was only a false start. In 1978 Shakey opted to direct Neil Young's
Rust Never Sleeps, a concert fantasy about the the re-birth of rock'n'roll
through the eyes of a new-born artist. This time Shakey hit it big. The
film was a big success and is generally hailed as one of the best
rock'n'roll concert movies ever made (along with The Last Waltz
and Stop Making Sense). It's a spirited work with glistering musical
performances and a bunch of weird characters running on and off the stage,
like Star Wars' Jawas as roadies and a Doctor Deaf
demanding the audience to put on their rust devices. Critic David Fricke
called it "a delightful surrealism about a young boy in love with
By now Shakey was on a roll, but still he had trouble getting his work
backed financially. Human Highway was the next deal and for a second time
he joined forces with Dean Stockwell. The filming had began in already in
1977, but was never finished. And when it was finished in 1984 they
couldn't find anyone to distribute it. "We tried to get the big bucks
people to distribute it. Nobody put it out because it was too weird",
Shakey explained after failing to sell it. Finally it was officially
released onto video in 1995.
Seen as a film, Human Highway is Shakey's most normal and accessible
feature film, his only normal film, although to call it normal is to
stretch the word. Regular Neil Young and Russel Tamblyn (Twin Peaks)
play two morons working on a gas station in the middle of a nuclear test area.
Dean Stockwell plays their arrogant boss, Sally Kirkland is a waitress and
Dennis Hopper is a dopey cook and a hip cowboy. In the film's best
remembered scenes, rock group Devo plays in red glowing overalls. It
doesn't really work as a comedy, it's too offbeat; and it doesn't work as a
musical because it's too upbeat.
During the last fifteen years Shakey has kept a low profile. Muddy Track
from 1986 didn't even make it past post-production. Although scenes were
bought by Jim Jarmusch, a devoted Shakey fan since young age, and used for
his Year of the Horse. The last Shakey picture to have reached an
audience is Weld, another concert picture with Neil Young on stage.
But while it still contains its share of good music, it never
reaches the level of untamed glory that has become Shakey's trademark. The
same year rumors persisted that Shakey worked on a new movie, Arc, to
accompany Neil Youngs "pollution soundtrack" of the same title.
But since no one has ever seen the movie, we can't say that it exists.
After going through the life work of Bernard Shakey we still can only guess:
Is he still in business? Is he still working? Is he still alive at all? Some say
he's only a pseudonym for documentary filmmaker Don Pennebaker (Don't
Look Back), some say he's a pseudonym for Dennis Hopper in an attempt at
hiding the worst of his expensive drug trips. All we know is that after a
career in the background, the mystery that is Bernard Shakey remains
unsolved. And that is probably cool by him.
Arc (1992) (director)
Weld (1991) (director)
Muddy Track (1986) (director)
Human Highway (1984) (co-director)
Rust Never Sleeps (1978) (director)
Journey Through the Past (1973) (director)
After the Goldrush (1970) (announced only)
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