I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

“We suck at this cowboy shit”: Dudes


by Anthony Galli
Aug. 11, 2015

Between 1979, when director Penelope Spheeris began filming the punk rock documentary Decline of Western Civilization, and 1987, when she directed the “punk rock” coming of age tale Dudes, a lot had changed in the punk rock stratosphere. The California hardcore scene that offered live-from-the mosh-pit testimony for 1981’s Decline of Western Civilization was no longer in existence. Black Flag, Fear, and the Circle Jerks had broken up by this point, The Germs imploded before the film was even released, and X had burned their way into the Billboard charts.

In 1987, when Dudes was released, Punk Rock wasn’t the same beast that was unleashed in London 10 years earlier. As Dudes screenwriter Randall Jahnson noticed, an element of rockabilly and country roots had crept into punk, with bands like The Blasters, Rank and File, and the Meat Puppets embedding a western sensibility into their manic beats.

So, why not celebrate this merging of cultures with some lighthearted cowpunk road comedy? What could go wrong? Didn’t the world, in 1987, need a punk rock buddy film that featured an Elvis impersonator (“Daredelvis”), hallucinated Native Americans, and a guy in a giant Mohawk haircut named Biscuit? I know, totally punk rock, right?

Dudes follows the saga of three young punk rockers who are fed up with the monotony of the punk rock scene in New York City (perhaps exemplified by the opening Cowboy/Indian mashup “Urban Struggle” by The Vandals), and head west to Hollywood, where they might actually “meet the Go-Go’s,” which is such a punk rock thing to do. The film travels through the great Western landscape, taking in Monument Valley, Wyoming, and Arizona on its quest for truth and identity, and it almost seems as if the film will resemble some sort of whimsical punk rock Three Stooges slapfest, until one of our heroes is violently murdered in the desert for no discernible reason.

This is when shit gets real, or, more accurately, when the film takes a turn for the absurd. Dudes transforms from a situation comedy, with exaggerated bar fights and other wacky antics, into a revenge fantasy, where the two surviving punkers track down and kill their friend’s murderer.

The film stars Jon Cryer, hot off his turn as Duckie in teen rom-com Pretty in Pink, as the confused Grant, and Daniel Roebuck as his trusty sidekick Biscuit. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, ironically the only real punk rocker of the trio, plays the murdered Milo, while Fear’s front man, Lee Ving, plays the pursued murderous redneck Missoula.

Dudes uses western film themes and motifs to suggest the movement of the wild frontier from the east to the west coast, and the hardships the original settlers encountered along the way. The film also equates the travelling punkers with the Indians, displaced freedom fighters struggling to maintain their place in the world. At a certain point, as Grant morphs into the film’s stylizes idea of a cowboy, Biscuit becomes an Indian, speaking in broken English, and able to mystically read the signs of Missoula’s trail.

Okay, some of this is just silly. The whole punk rockers hallucinating Indians thing is straight out of psychedelic Jim Morrison mythology, which is somewhat interesting when one realizes that, not only, did Dudes screenwriter Randall Jahnson write the screenplay for Oliver Stone’s 1991 The Doors, but also that Doors drummer John Densmore has a cameo in Dudes as a deputy who gets shot.

From the desert acid flashbacks of the 1960’s, Dudes also acknowledges the 1950’s obliquely through a randomly placed Elvis impersonator, “Daredelvis,” another lost soul stranded in the middle of 1980’s nowhere. After our heroes help “Daredelvis” dig his trailer out of a sand bank, he asks them, “What’s your line of work, anyway?” Simple enough question, but it lands us squarely back into the “greed is good” mentality of the 1980’s, where one’s self-identity is inextricably bound up with one’s occupation. This sort of corporate self-branding is exactly what punk rock rebelled against in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, and probably what the three lead characters in Dudes should be rebelling against as well.

Corporate sponsorship, however, doesn’t seem to bother the filmmakers of Dudes any, who, if product placement is any indication, received a sum of money from Miller Beer. For example, while “Daredelvis” discusses career options with Grant and Biscuit, he assures them that he is so talented, “In two years I’m going to be making Miller Lite commercials.” It’s nice to see an Elvis impersonator discussing upward social mobility with punk rockers. Later, Grant and Biscuit meet the film’s female “love interest,” the ambiguously gendered Jessie (as in Jesse James---get it?) who transforms Grant into an effective cowboy by teaching him to ride a horse (oh, those city slickers), and shoot a gun. Jessie practices her shooting at…wait for it…empty Miller Lite bottles! Finally, as Grant prepares for his final showdown with Missoula, he meets up with him in a saloon with prominent Miller Lite neon signs displayed.

Perhaps this is all coincidence.

Did director Penelope Spheeris know that Miller Lite was originally marketed to athletic types with the idea that they could enjoy its less-filling great-taste and still make it to the gridiron and bust some heads? Again, totally punk rock…Not. But, as Missoula asserts before the gunfight in the county jail, “It’s Miller time!”

There is also a slight matter of cognitive dissonance concerning the Dudes soundtrack. Despite the “punk rock” theme that the film originated from, there is a continual return to the heavy metal and hard rock conventions that were so popular in the late 1980’s, and which Spheeris would document to hilarious effect in her next film, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. So, yeah, a Jane’s Addiction demo makes it onto the soundtrack, and the opening song by The Vandals is there, for laughs one supposes…maybe a tune by The Leather Nun is sorta punk (yeah, so, who were The Leather Nun and whatever happened to them, or it, anyway?) The bulk of the soundtrack is made up of the heavy metal and faux hard rock of the time. Keel? W.A.S.P.? Simon Steele & The Claw, for God’s sake??

What, not enough money in the budget for Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills”?

Did Penelope Spheeris hate punk rock or something? Is her idea of punk rock a song like Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio,” which she has a Strother Martin-esque prisoner singing in the little one horse town jail, or “Urban Struggle,” which begins the movie with the “I want to be a cowboy” joke? Is that why she makes a cartoon out of the punk rock scene and its characters, dressing them in costumes that suggest they are just as conformist as the society they are supposedly rebelling against? After all, why else would Biscuit proclaim “Chicks love a man in uniform” at the sight of a hulking punk rock knucklehead in full leather regalia and obligatory giant 1980’s shoulder pads on his sleeveless, leather vest? A man in uniform…more conformity in a film that is outwardly anti-establishment.

But, maybe it’s not anti-establishment at all. Maybe that’s the genius of Penelope Spheeris and Dudes. Maybe Spheeris, in this film and others, wanted to point her cameras at the misfits of society to demonstrate how trying to exist successfully outside the system doesn’t work. Maybe we need to wear a uniform, and take the endorsement deal, and want our MTV like the old prisoner guy in the film, who finishes up with a snippet of Sting’s “If you love somebody, set them free.” Nothing commercial there. MTV and Sting…totally punk rock.

Penelope Spheeris would direct the über-successful, and hilarious, Wayne’s World in 1992, before attacking the mainstream with full length cinematic re-imaginings of dusty television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies (1993) and The Little Rascals (1994).

But Spheeris isn’t the only Dudes participant to parlay her indie credibility into full-blown mainstream success. Tucked away in the credits is a songwriting and performance acknowledgement for a little known musician and songwriter named Gore Verbinski who would later direct Disney’s shockingly successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

In a strange way, Dudes is the little film that could. It may not have gotten very far itself, but everybody seemed to come out of it with very successful careers. Don’t know what happened to Simon Steele & The Claw, though.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.