The American Dreamer Blu-ray Review

Fascinating documentary capturing a raw Dennis Hopper after the success of Easy Rider

Film rebel Dennis Hopper was riding high in 1971 after the unexpected success of Easy Rider. Now the voice of a new cinematic generation, Hopper followed it with his highly personal The Last Movie which turned into a box office disaster. The American Dreamer is a unique quasi-documentary of Dennis Hopper’s personal life during this turbulent time as he makes The Last Movie.

Co-directors Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson turn American Dreamer into a highly intimate, raw glimpse inside the world of a rising movie star before failure would knock him back down. With the help of Dennis Hopper himself knowingly playing up a wild, outlaw persona for the cameras, The American Dreamer becomes a captivating portrait of an important American actor and director. This is not an ordinary documentary but an oddly compelling portrait of a charismatic personality.

Hot off the success of Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper had become a bona fide movie star on the rise. The American Dreamer richly documents this period of time as Hopper enjoys the fruits of stardom and makes his own pet project a reality. Universal gave the new star carte blanche on his next project, The Last Movie. A deeply personal reflection on the meaning of cinema, The Last Movie ultimately became a forgettable box office disaster that only received a token theatrical release. The American Dreamer was intended to be a companion documentary about the making of The Last Movie. It was created for the 16mm college film circuit, a thriving sub-market in the early 1970s.

What separates The American Dreamer from your ordinary behind-the-scenes documentary is that most of it is a put-on by Dennis Hopper alongside more down-to-earth moments. With the help of Schiller and Carson he constructs a Charles Manson-like persona that plays up his outlaw appeal and public image from Easy Rider. The self-reflective documentary goes deep into Hopper’s philosophies on drugs, women, sex, and other counterculture topics that likely would have found a receptive audience on the college film circuit of the time. It is a scattershot affair that bounces from subject to subject, creating a fairly intimate portrayal of Dennis Hopper.

We see fly-on-the-wall segments as Hopper dreamily muses on those subjects with his friends and the circle of groupies that naturally followed a star in those days. It is a strangely hypnotic experience to hear a young Dennis Hopper ramble on about the female mystique, oral sex, his passion for still photography, and the hard work necessary to edit a film. The American Dreamer adds a finishing touch by hanging the loose narrative around a rustic soundtrack of country-tinged folk rock songs. It is the perfect complement to Hopper’s carefree philosophies and crafted stage persona.

Hopper exerts a pull over the mostly young women as they hang on his every word.

The documentary flows remarkably well despite jumping around from The Last Movie to Hopper’s strange circle of friends. They could charitably be called a group of young hippies living off the famous actor. Hopper exerts a pull over the mostly young women as they hang on his every word. It is hard to tell if Hopper’s quiet charisma or his fame that commands their attention. The scene when he holds a “trust” exercise with a group of half-nude women makes one wonder, almost reminiscent of the Manson family. Some of The American Dreamer is pure performance art. Hopper drives to the suburbs of Los Alamos, New Mexico and walks fully nude through a neighborhood for no meaningful purpose. It is supposedly a statement about the nearby nuclear weapon research going on by the government.

The American Dreamer captures an important time in Dennis Hopper’s life and delivers one of the rawest glimpses of a Hollywood star ever seen. It has an eerie hypnotic quality as Hopper convincingly crafts an outlaw hippie persona that would have been appealing to a new generation at the time.

This is a documentary less about the making of a movie and more about turning Dennis Hopper into a rebel extraordinaire for his intended college audience. The only complaint is how much one can tolerate some of Hopper’s mindless discourses, likely fueled by some strong drugs. That is part of the charm but some will find Hopper’s hippie leanings of the time terribly dated and tedious. Consider it a unique document of a fascinating, wild time.

Movie ★★★★☆

Great shot @ 4:49

The original 16mm camera negative for The American Dreamer was destroyed decades ago in a fire. The included booklet gives us this information about the new 2K restoration found on this BD:

The American Dreamer was completely scanned & restored in the USA by Etiquette Pictures artists. The picture was scanned in 2k on  an Arriscan, from the four remaining 16mm theatrical release prints. The raw scans were then edited together to create the best and most complete version possible. The film was then manually restored using the digital restoration suite PFClean. Color Grading was performed on DaVinci Resolve 11. The digital preservation master was approved by both Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson. The final uncompressed picture & sound files are preserved for posterity on multiple LTO tapes.

Etiquette Pictures, in partnership with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, brings this forgotten documentary to home video for the very first time in a new, director approved 2k restoration, painstakingly reconstructed from four 16mm prints housed in the Walker Art Center’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. The people behind cult label Vinegar Syndrome are associated with Etiquette Pictures.

It appears that Etiquette Pictures has done everything possible with the extant film elements and given us the best possible Blu-ray presentation. The 80-minute main feature is in 1080P resolution at its expected 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It receives a BD-50 with a strong AVC video encode, averaging 34.46 Mbps. That transparently captures the rough 16mm footage in all its glory, from the dense grain structure to the heavy film wear visible on the print. A natural approach has been taken with this documentary, leaving the transfer unfiltered. Resolution is still spotty at times, wavering alongside the uneven contrast and black levels.

The rough 16mm color footage is accurately reflected on this Blu-ray as an honest depiction of its innate picture quality. This is not an immaculate viewing experience consistent from beginning to end. Crushed black levels are a problem at times and the footage reflects the documentary’s haphazard shooting conditions. Many of the college kids that originally saw this in the 1970s likely didn’t see The American Dreamer look any better.

Video★★☆☆☆

The sole audio option is a fine, if limited, 1.0 DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack. This information was included in the booklet: The soundtrack was transferred on a Magna-Tech Sound Reproducer from the 16mm theatrical prints. Hopper’s monologues are delivered in intelligible quality with decent fidelity for the included songs. Made on portable audio recorders that would be considered very primitive by today’s standards, some limitations exist. Some hiss is present in the audio with the usual amount of tiny pops and clicks in the background. It is not particularly objectionable but does not offer the highest fidelity possible.

Optional English SDH subtitles display in a yellow font.

Audio ★★★☆☆

New distributor Etiquette Pictures has made this a complete combo package in a clear Blu-ray case. The movie is included on both a region-free Blu-ray and DVD. A very informative 16-page booklet contains vintage playbills and a long essay by veteran movie writer Chris Poggiali. It’s an excellent piece providing the history of The American Dreamer. The included reversible cover is a nice touch and much appreciated.

“Fighting Against the Wind”: Making The American Dreamer (29:40 in HD) – A new behind-the-scenes documentary with co-director Lawrence Schiller filling out most of the important details.

“A Long Way Home”: Preserving The American Dreamer (07:06 in HD) – Schiller details how the negative was lost and how the Walker Art Center helped restore the film.

Still Photograph Gallery by Lawrence Schiller (03:21 in HD) – Dozens of rare stills from the film.

Extras ★★★☆☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.