Two-Lane Blacktop

Two-Lane Blacktop is a 1971 road movie directed by Monte Hellman, starring singer-songwriter James Taylor, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, and Laurie Bird. Esquire magazine declared the film its movie of the year for 1971, and even published the entire screenplay in its April, 1971 issue, but the film was not a commercial success. The film has since become a cult classic. Brock Yates, organizer of the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash (better known as the Cannonball Run) cites Two-Lane Blacktop as one source of inspiration for the creation of the race, and commented on it in his Car and Driver column announcing the first Cannonball.

Two-Lane Blacktop is notable as a time capsule film of U.S. Route 66 during the pre-Interstate Highway era, and for its stark footage and minimal dialogue. As such it has become popular with fans of Route 66. Two-Lane Blacktop has been compared to similar road movies with an existentialist message from the era, such as Vanishing Point, Easy Rider, and Electra Glide in Blue.


The premise involves two drag racers (played by Taylor and Wilson) who live on the road in their 1955 Chevy (sometimes identified as a Chevrolet Bel Air) and drift from town to town, making their only income challenging local residents to races. The movie follows them driving east on Route 66 from Needles, California. They pick up a hitchhiker in Flagstaff, Arizona (played by Bird). In New Mexico, they encounter another drag racing drifter (played by Oates, driving an "Orbit Orange" 1970 Pontiac GTO Judge) and challenge him to a cross-country race to Washington, D.C." for pinks," or legal ownership of the loser's car. Characters are never identified by name in the movie; instead they are named "The Driver," "The Mechanic," "GTO," and "The Girl". The movie follows the group east through small towns in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee. No character makes it to Washington D.C. within the scope of the film.

After sleeping with both the Driver and the Mechanic during the winding course of the journey, The Girl disappoints both the Driver and the Mechanic when she abruptly leaves with the GTO while they are competing at a local racetrack in Arkansas. The Driver pursues them intently, finding them at a diner where the Girl has just rejected the GTO's idea to visit Chicago. The Driver proposes going to Columbus, Ohio to pick up some parts, but the Girl immediately rejects him. She hops on the back of a long-haired stranger's motorcycle, dropping her bag in the parking lot. The three men abruptly depart from the diner in their respective cars. The driver of the GTO, who has told a different story about himself to each of the many hitchhikers he picked up, stops for two soldiers. He tells his passengers that he has won the car while driving a home-built '55 Chevy, emphasizing the circular theme of the film. The film ends during a drag race at an airstrip in East Tennessee. The sound drops out, then the film seems to slow until it freezes frame, and begins to burn the film within the projector.


Will Corry's script was bought by producer Michael Laughlin and he asked Hellman to direct it. The filmmaker liked the basic idea but agreed to make the film only if another screenwriter was hired to rewrite the script. Laughlin agreed and they hired Rudy Wurlitzer. Hellman and Wurlitzer worked closely on the script. Hellman saw a picture of James Taylor on a billboard on the Sunset Strip and asked the musician to come and do a screen test. Dennis Wilson was the last actor cast.

This film was considered a low budget film at the time of its production. It only cost an estimated US$850 000 to complete. A Rolling Stone article written on location a full year before the film's release proclaimed the film an "instant classic" about "road racers and their women, cross-country adventure, the Great God Speed." Coupled with Esquire magazine's equally enthusiastic response, Universal Pictures was initially excited to promote the film. However, Lew Wasserman, then head of the studio, saw the film and hated it. He refused to promote it and when it opened in New York City on the July Fourth weekend, there was not one single newspaper ad promoting it. In its initial release, it was expected to make the rounds through the then thriving Drive-in theater market, where low budget and B-movies found a thriving audience. Instead, the film was not successful at the box office.


Unlike other Existential road movies of the time (such as "Easy Rider", and "Vanishing Point"), Two-Lane Blacktop does not rely heavily on music, nor was a soundtrack album released. The music featured in the film covers many genres, including Rock, Folk, Blues, Country, Bluegrass, and R&B. Interestingly enough, the two stars of the film, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, did not contribute any music.

However, there are some notable tracks featured in the film, including "Moonlight Drive" by The Doors, the traditional folk tune "Stealin'" performed by Arlo Guthrie, and the original version of "Me and Bobby McGee" performed by the song's author Kris Kristofferson.


Anchor Bay Entertainment released a limited edition of the movie on October 24, 2000, with only 15 000 copies made. The disc was housed in a metal tin and extras included a 48-page booklet featuring behind-the-scenes photographs and liner notes about director Monte Hellman, a 5" X 7" theatrical poster replica, and a die-struck miniature car key chain. Anchor Bay released a regular edition on October 19, 1999, without the poster and key chain.

At a July 2007 screening of the film, Hellman revealed that the Criterion Collection was releasing a two-disc special edition DVD that featured a new documentary made by Hellman that included an interview with Kristofferson about how "Me and Bobby McGee" has become so closely associated with the film. This DVD set was released on December 11, 2007.


  • Two of the '55 Chevys used in the filming of Two-Lane Blacktop were later used in the filming of American Graffiti. In the early 2000s, Chevy High Performance magazine ran an article about the 1955 Chevrolets used in the film, where a third car exists (this is the car seen at the gas station) - the builder of the car (Richard Ruth) confirmed that the third car (once located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada) does exist. Current owner Walt Bailey searched for years to find it when it turned up in Canada. Walt had Richard help restore the car to its movie condition. The '55 sports a tunnel-rammed 454, a four speed and an Olds rear end. The fiberglass tilt front end, doors, and decklid are all movie correct.
  • The camera car from Two-Lane Blacktop was also used in a later movie (Smokey and the Bandit) but it was only heard and not seen. The director of Smokey and the Bandit felt that the Trans-Am used in the movie didn't have the sound he wanted, so he had the sound of the '55 Chevy's engine dubbed over the sound of the Trans Am's engine.
  • In 2003 Plain Recordings released a Two-Lane Blacktop tribute album entitled You Can Never Go Fast Enough featuring Will Oldham, Calexico, Mark Eitzel, Giant Sand, Leadbelly, Sonic Youth, Cat Power and others.
  • Rob Zombie wrote a song called "Two-Lane Blacktop," available on his 2003 Past, Present & Future collection. The song loosely covers the plot of the movie. It also appears in the video game Need for Speed Underground as one of many soundtracks.
  • Filmed from August to October 1970. Dennis Wilson was forced to miss several concert appearances including the Big Sur Folk Festival at the Monterey Fairgrounds due to his commitment to the film.
  • Despite starring in the film, Taylor has admitted that he has never viewed the finished product.


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