Though critics loved it and it’s now a cult classic, almost no one saw “Two-Lane Blacktop” when it was released in 1971. It then disappeared from public view for two decades, until a passionate group of fans helped bring it back.
Singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boys’ drummer Dennis Wilson star as drifters roaming the country in a 1955 Chevy, hustling a living by drag racing. Soon after picking up a hitchhiker - played by first-time actress Laurie Bird, just 17 – Taylor and Wilson challenge a sports-car driving, middle-aged wanderer (the brilliant Warren Oates) to a cross-country race to Washington D.C. The winner gets the loser’s car. It sounds like a predictable Hollywood premise, but “Two-Lane” always manages to defy audience expectations.
The first surprise is the casting of musicians with no acting experience in the lead roles. As he was prepping for the film, director Monte Hellman saw a billboard in Los Angeles promoting the release of Taylor’s first U.S. album. Hellman thought Taylor had the perfect look and cast him. Dennis Wilson was suggested at the last minute by a mutual friend who thought he’d understand the street racing culture. Neither Taylor nor Wilson sing or play a single note in the movie.
The shooting of “Two-Lane Blacktop” has become legendary. Filmed entirely in sequence, cast and crew went on a real road trip from Los Angeles to all points east, including a stop in Flagstaff. Oates actually drove his own Winnebago in the low-budget caravan. Joni Mitchell, who was dating Taylor at the time, came along for much of the trip, and the two put on impromptu concerts for cast and crew.
To keep his novice actors in the dark about the fate of their characters, Hellman never allowed them to see the full script, doling out a couple of pages at a time. Taylor found this disconcerting and threatened to quit if he couldn’t see the script. Hellman consented, but Taylor ultimately decided not to read it.
The director’s method worked. While no one would accuse Taylor and Wilson of being great actors, they are completely believable as rootless wanderers who don’t know where they’ll be from one day to the next.
The real magic of the film is not its story or the acting of its inexperienced cast though. It’s the way it captures a moment and place in time - the wandering road subculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when many disaffected Americans rejected mainstream culture and went “off the grid.” Audiences find the film almost hypnotic in its portrayal of the road, feeling as if they’re along for the ride in the backseat.
On its release, Esquire magazine called “Two-Lane Blacktop” the film of the year. But the head of Universal hated it and refused to spend a dime to promote it. Few saw it and the movie virtually disappeared. In 1994, a Seattle video store petitioned Universal to try to get it to finally release the movie on home video. The film is now widely available and has finally gotten its due as one of the best American road movies.