Stab it and Steer: Five road movies to spark your plugs

Sweet as: Andrea arnold's American Honey
SWEET AS: Andrea Arnold’s American Honey

As British director Andrea Arnold (Red Road, 2006; Fish Tank, 2009) trails the white-lined blacktop across the US midwest with a gang of itinerant, teenage magazine sellers in her latest feature, the Cannes Jury Prize winner American Honey, we throw down a few titles that map their own cinematic routes down highways, motorways and autobahns towards the inevitable end of the road.

But before we start making (short) lists, just what ingredients do you need on the screen to make a film with a motor and some tarmac into a road movie? Here’s what Jason Wood says:

‘…road movies commonly entail the undertaking of a journey by one or more protagonists as they seek out adventure, redemption or escape from the constricting norms of society and its laws… however, closer inspection reveals the dream of the road to be tarnished, a dead end in which love and dreams are dashed and hopes vanquished by harsh reality.’

One more fancy framing quote from Stephanie Watson:

‘…the promise of the road forwards is also accompanied by the fear of going too far, sliding off the map, or simply being trapped along the same piece of road with no hope of progression.’

And that last genre-defining nugget feeds nicely into the first of our five…

Two Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)

The Driver. The Mechanic. The Girl. GTO. And Route 66.

The cast, story, script and performances in Hellman’s 1971 classic are all as stripped down as the engine in its other star, the mean and rustically cool, primer-grey 55 Chevy that James Taylor (the Driver) and Dennis Wilson (the Mechanic) bust relentlessly down highways and from drag race to drag race – in search of what exactly?

Well, there’s something about a race with Warren Oates (GTO) to Washington DC for pink slips (car ownership papers) and there’s a fine thread of love interest when Lauri Bird (the Girl) jumps aboard with the moody lads and then jumps off again with GTO. But really it’s just a film about obsession – obsession with speed, obsession with the road for the road’s sake, obsession with moving forward through America and never looking sideways or back.

Pure, simple and possibly the best.

Radio On (Chris Petit, 1979)

Can there be such a thing as a British road movie? Isn’t this pokey island just too bloody small for anything meaningful to happen on it’s meagre B roads and soulless Motorways?

The sheer lack of Scale has always been a fall-back explainer for the dearth of UK offerings in this sub-genre. As Susan Pickings says: ‘…sooner or later one hits the edge of the world, the end of the road, the sea. Of necessity, the British road is brief.’

But somehow, on a short-haul jaunt from London to Bristol in a knackered old Rover, director Chris Petit creates the best of the British bunch, though admittedly it’s a very small bunch.

Yes, Radio On is a gloomy indictment of a country suffering after a decade of decline and other socio-culturally observational stuff, but there’s fun to be had among all that black and white Balardian introspection: The Westway improbably transformed into a driver’s paradise, for example; the slick soundtrack opening up with Bowie’s Helden (German version of Heroes) and playing through Kraftwerk, Devo, Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric, to name a just a few; oh, and an incongruous but slick turn by old Sting, laying down a class croon of Eddie Cochrane’s ‘Three steps to Heaven.’

Check it above. And check those GT petrol pumps. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Vanishing Point (Richard Sarafian, 1971)

It’s bloody Petrocelli on speed! Driving a Dodge Charger that refuses to stop no matter who gets in the way!

Once I got over the shock of seeing my old nana’s favourite crusading TV lawyer from the 70s throwing back amphetamine pills like my son throws back tic-tacs, I sat back and enjoyed the ride – Denver to San Fran in two days at about 200MPH against the cops and everyone else, under the beat-guidance of ultra-cool, blind radio DJ, Super Soul (Cleavon Little), of KOW Radio. Hear Super Soul here.

Not until the disembodied lips of Lynne Thigpen ghosted The Warriors on their nocturnal flight back to Coney Island would a protagonist’s journey be so stylishly traced over the air waves.

By the end of the film Barry Newman’s not Petrocelli anymore, nowhere near it. He’s Kowalski: ‘The last beautiful free soul on this planet.’

Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders, 1976)

The only road movie featuring a live-action dump by the central protagonist? I’d say yes. The only (proper) film ever featuring a live-action dump by the central protagonist? Not sure. I’d still say, probably, yes. Someone will have to help me out on that one.

But don’t just watch Kings of the Road for that disconcerting evacuation.

Watch it for Wenders cinematographer and long time collaborator Robby Muller’s crisp, black and white photography of the fields, towns and country roads unfolding languidly along the liminal spaces of the East/West Germany border in the mid-70s, as Bruno (Rudiger Vogler) and his suicidally depressed, hitcher-sidekick Robert (Hans Zischler), rumble from town to town in a repair van fixing up old projection equipment at sad, clapped out movie theatres.

There aren’t many words. Just lots of time and space and some top driving tracks, such as the one in the clip above from Krautrockers, Improved Sound Limited.

The road beckons. Listen. Watch. Enjoy.

Catch Us If you Can (John Boorman, 1965)

Maybe the second-best of that tiny bunch of (five or six? Three?) British road movies, but it’s a personal favourite.

Boorman was a documentary filmmaker when he embarked on this Dave Clarke five vehicle, and his documentarian’s touch is apparent throughout as we follow stuntman Steve (Dave Clark) and model Dinah (Barbara Ferris) in a white E-Type Jag on the run from a cynical advertising guru.

Boorman captures for posterity London streets almost empty of cars; West End shoppers getting a proper grip on the rampant consumerism sparked in the late 50s; the staggeringly beautiful, snowy and desolate heath and woodlands of the Quantocks, and most spectacularly perhaps, the grassy dunes staring breezily out across a Devon estuary beach to mysterious Burgh Island. On this beach at the climax the running couple will finally have their dreams subsumed into the advertising vortex by your advertising geezer.

No one escapes the advertisers.

As Wood said back at the start, the idea of the road is tarnished, it’s ‘a dead end in which love and dreams are dashed and hopes vanquished by harsh reality’.

Still, Don’t let that stop you. Drive on.

Boy Walks in With a Trumpet

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My boy walked in with a trumpet the other day and started blasting away on one C note, just as Don Cheadle’s improvisational Miles Ahead landed at the local cinema. As we walked down the high street past the foyer he noticed the promo poster with Cheadle sporting tailored psychedelic coat and shades and stopped, transfixed.

‘Who’s that?’ he says, staring.

A sign? A fateful confluence as the creative tentacles of the late jazz legend somehow reached out and awoke an untapped musical genius hidden deep within the boy?

Nah, just a coincidence.

But it inspired me to dip into a couple of jazz docs and see if they might be suitable for him. They weren’t. Too much heroin, booze and depression for a 10-year-old. Maybe next year.

But they’re okay for us to watch and they’re bloody good.

Let’s Get Lost (Bruce Weber, 1988)

Weber shoots contemporary footage of Jazz trumpet legend Chet Baker in monochrome and blends it with archive scenes, creating a seamless link between his early days on the circuit in the late 50s/early 60s and the period of filming in 1987, one year before his fatal fall from a hotel window in Amsterdam, aged 58.

This stylistic fusion of past and present makes the decline in Baker’s physical appearance all the more jarring; lantern jawed and chiselled good looks in early scenes give way to gaunt, drawn, heroin-ravaged features in airy sequences shot late-80s on Santa Monica beach and at the Cannes Film Festival.

But the music doesn’t suffer. Weber’s beautifully contrasty close-up shots of Baker performing live and in the studio reveal a man still deeply in touch with his voice and instrument. Despite his addiction, a beating that knocked his teeth out, prison in Italy, expulsions from various European countries on drug charges, his voice at the end sounds almost as drenched in smoke and romance as it did at the beginning. Mesmerising!

Here’s what the New York Times had to say about Let’s Get Lost.

Watch the film on Netflix or buy it here.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)

Raw, emotional, heartbreaking. Much of what you need to know about the music and passion of ‘The High Priestess of Soul’ and bookended with riveting concert footage.

Garbus’ insight into the personal, artistic and political life of the iconic singer and dedicated civil rights activist received an Oscar nomination and the endorsement of Simone’s only daughter, Lisa, in contrast with her disavowal of the controversial and critically panned Nina (Cynthia Mort, 2016). Says it all.

Here’s the late Roger Ebert’s take on What Happened…

Watch on Netflix. Hope you enjoy!


Tony Paley’s Ten for the Kids & Family

A revisit/reload here of a great ‘top ten’ from a while back by Guardian film blogger (and racing editor), Tony Paley. Thanks again, Tony!

‘Cinema offers so much for parents and children. It’s a shared experience for a start. Cinema is also a way of introducing youngsters to the power and wonder of art – it’s a medium that is immediately accessible now via DVDs and streaming but that also, via theatrical exhibition, gives young people an immersive experience they will, from time to time, never forget.

I am a committed cinemagoer who has taken my children to see films on the big screen as often as possible. I also take them to see movies that wouldn’t always be classified as children’s films. I believe that’s also important.

Here’s ten that worked for us. It’s not meant to be a definitive list, some wouldn’t be considered masterpieces by any means and they won’t work for everybody.’

The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, 1939) My kids have been brought up on Alfred Hitchcock, the most purely cinematic director in the history of the medium. Only Lifeboat sank, so to speak, and I could have picked any one from a huge number that have captured their imagination but this is my personal favourite of Hitch’s output.

Sunset Boulevard or SUNSET BLVD  (Wilder, 1950) This one was rolled out on New Year’s Eve one time and saved that annually wretched evening from disaster. Why it captured my two sons I’m not quite sure but we subsequently went to see this at my local, the Rio Cinema, and they were just as captivated.

Galaxy Quest (Parisot, 1999) This sci-fi comedy (?) was recommended by a work colleague and features in this brilliant Guardian top 50 family films list. Enjoyable in every sense – funny, intellectually stimulating and features kick-ass Sigourney Weaver in some great outfits.

Breaking Away (Yates, 1979) or Stand By Me (Reiner, 1986) Growing up. In America. That is all.

Hard Day’s Night (Lester, 1963) or Yellow Submarine (Dunning, 1968) – “with The Beatles”. Both innovative movies in their own ways with wonderful soundtracks. Can’t go wrong.

The Music Box (Parrott, 1932) I could have chosen one from any number in the Laurel and Hardy oeuvre. They’re just big kids in a chaotic universe one step from failure and on the edge of destruction. Their short films are a life lesson in 20 minutes.

The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011) The most original piece of film-making of the 21st century so far and a great film about families and growing up. Ideally should be seen on a big screen for the ‘formation of life’ sequence.


The Muppets (Bobin, 2011) We watched this four times in total, culminating in a sing-a-long screening at the Prince Charles Cinema with another family.

Night of the Hunter (Laughton, 1955) The best film by a director with one movie to his name. A film about the mysteries and nightmares of childhood. Haunting, moving, ethereal. A one-off classic.

Kes (Loach, 1969) You’ll all laugh. You’ll all cry.