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The True Story Behind The Bikeriders, Explained

The True Story Behind The Bikeriders, Explained


  • The Bikeriders delves into the rise of a Midwest biker gang, detailing the dangerous allure of a rebellious lifestyle.
  • Director Jeff Nichols drew inspiration from Danny Lyon’s photographic exploration of real-life bikers in the 1960s.
  • Although based on Lyon’s work, the film adds a unique twist by creating its own characters and storyline.

Jeff Nichol’s The Bikeriders aims to capture a realistic portrait of criminally driven motorcycle clubs, the complex mix of the allure of a rebellious lifestyle and the disdain for the violent and illegal actions that fuel their lifestyle. To do this, Nichols, who wrote and directed the film, took inspiration from a famous photography book that chronicled the lives of real-life bikers in the 1960s: Danny Lyon’s 1968 book The Bikeriders.

We will look at Danny Lyon’s legacy, how his work inspired the ensemble crime thriller, and how much of the movie is based on the book of the same name.

Plot and Cast of The Bikeriders

The Bikeriders follows the rise of a midwestern motorcycle club called the “Vandals” over the course of a decade. The gang’s history is told through the lives of various club members. However, it focuses on a reckless biker, Benny (Austin Butler), and his wife, Kathy (Jodie Comer), as they navigate Benny’s growing violent actions and allegiance to the gang leader, Johnny (Tom Hardy). The movie explores the complexities of bike gang culture in a humanizing and fascinating way, drawing influence from the stories of famous photographer Danny Lyon.

The Bikeriders is the 7th feature film by director Jeff Nichols, best known for his work on 2011s Take Shelter and 2012s Mud starring Matthew McConaughey. The biker drama presents an ensemble cast including iconic names such as Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon, and Norman Reedus. Lead actor Austin Butler, as Benny, has appeared in such films as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Dune: Part Two, but his major breakout role came from playing “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” in the multi-Oscar nominated movie Elvis (2022). Jodie Comer, who plays Benny’s wife, Kathy, is best known for her roles in The Last Duel, Free Guy, and as Villanelle in the hit TV series Killing Eve.

Danny Lyon’s Work Inspired Director Jeff Nichols

Danny Lyon, self portrait New York City
Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

The Bikeriders is not entirely based on a true story; rather, it draws heavy influence from the book of photography and interviews of the same name by American artist Danny Lyon. Danny Lyon was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 16, 1942, and grew up in Queens. He started getting involved in cultural issues in 1963 when he became the staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and documented major events during the Civil Rights Movement.


The Bikeriders Author Says He Wasn’t Allowed to Look At Tom Hardy When Visiting Set

Danny Lyon was made to “hide behind a tree” around Tom Hardy when visiting the set of The Bikeriders.

In the mid-1960s, Lyon joined the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club and spent two years photographing and living with the bikers. This led to the release of the book The Bikeriders (1968), which was met with critical acclaim for its intimate and realistic portrayal of the culture. Lyon would follow up this work with another acclaimed photographic exploration of the Texas prison system in 1971’s Conversations with the Dead. Lyon’s empathetic photographic essays have seen his work hosted in the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Gallery of Art.

The Real Motorcycle Club

Photograph of Bikers by Danny Lyon
Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

The Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club inspired Jeff Nichol’s gang, the “Vandals.” The Outlaws Motorcycle Club was founded in 1935 in McCook, Illinois (just outside Chicago). The gang would come under the watch of law enforcement agencies under implication of various crimes, including drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering, and violence against rival motorcycle clubs.

Peter “Big Pete” James would rise as the prominent leader of the Chicago Outlaws, gaining the title of “Godfather” of the club. “Big Pete” would be responsible for forming 38 motorcycle clubs and 8 outlaw motorcycle club chapters in the greater Chicago area over his 20-year career. The infamous bike club leader would go on to publish a book about his life with the club titled The Last Chicago Boss: My Life with the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club.

Austin Butler on a Motorcycle for the poster image of The Bikeriders (2024)
Focus Features

Director Jeff Nichols used Lyon’s book to inspire his work, but none of the characters are directly taken from the writings or photos. The project for him is decades in the making, as he has stated the work took 20 years to process how he would approach it. This came in part with his own conflict on approaching the characters before ultimately settling on creating his own story using the book as inspiration. This can best be summed up in the following interview with Deadline, where he commented on Lyon:

“Because he saw them for what they were because he was around them, and he often talked about how beautiful they were. But also, he would call them idiots sometimes and I think there’s a tension between the allure of this subculture and the reality of it.” Jeff Nichols


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Where to Watch The Bikeriders

Read Our Review

The Bikeriders is set to be released in theaters on Friday, June 21, 2024; It was originally scheduled for December 1, 2023. The film is being distributed by Focus Features, so it will likely stream on a major streaming platform like Peacock, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video at a later date, but streaming information is not available at this time. For those wanting to see more of Danny Lyon, he directed several films based on his life experiences; you can stream his most notable work in film, The Abandoned Children, on Fandor.

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