During the early ’70s, one of the most happening scenes in the music business revolved around the Troubadour club in West Hollywood, the watering hole of choice for folks like Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt. Perhaps no single narrative movie captures the texture of this scene better than Cisco Pike, which tells the story of a rock star who turns to dealing grass when his career goes cold. Starring singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson in his first acting role, Cisco Pike exudes atmosphere and authenticity as the storyline winds through nightclubs, recording studios, and the streets of Los Angeles—at its best, the movie almost feels like a documentary capturing what it was like to be high on tunes (and weed) in the City of Angels during a transitional moment between the idealism of the late ’60s and the decadence of the late ’70s.
The weird part, though, is that Cisco Pike isn’t really a story about the music business. It’s a crime thriller exploring what happens when the title character gets into a hassle with a whacked-out cop who’s playing both sides of the law. The basic story involves an LAPD psycho named Leo Holland (Gene Hackman) forcing rocker-turned-recidivist Cisco (Kristofferson) to sell a huge trove of pot that’s fallen into Holland’s hands. In shaking down his old music-industry contacts for cash, Cisco finds out which friends have integrity and thereby arrives at a new but unsettling understanding of his place in the world. Thanks to this offbeat storyline, viewers can consume Cisco Pike several different ways. For instance, it’s possible to groove on the picture as a nostalgia trip, and it’s also possible to enjoy the narrative’s mild suspense.
What makes film so rich, besides the colorful details woven into writer-director Bill L. Norton’s script and the extensive location photography, is the lively cast. Beyond Kristofferson, who exudes such powerful natural charisma that he subsequently became a movie star, Cisco Pike benefits from Hackman giving an energetically weird performance as the dirty cop, as well as Harry Dean Stanton blending humor and pathos as the title character’s once-and-future singing partner. The picture also features ’70s stalwarts Allan Arbus, Karen Black, Roscoe Lee Browne, Antonio Fargas, Howard Hesseman, and Severn Darden. For some fans, however, the highlight is a cameo by real-life rocker Doug Sahm, who plays a campy riff on himself—rhapsodizing about the virtues of great ganja and spewing subliterate hipster jive about music, he epitomizes the far-out vibe of stoned ’70s rock.
It’s easy to find flaws with Cisco Pike, because the movie’s energy is fairly low and because Norton’s filmmaking style is way more conventional than, say, Dennis Hopper’s mind-bending approach, which might have suited this milieu better. But considering how many interesting things Cisco Pike presents in its 95 minutes, complaining that it could have been a stronger picture seems petty.
Cisco Pike: GROOVY