Easy Rider 40th Anniversary

[22 November 2009]

By Adele Melander-Dayton

When my dad heard I was reviewing Easy Rider, he was unexpectedly excited. “I saw Easy Rider when it first came out,” he said. “I was only twelve, so a lot of it went over my head, but man, it blew my mind.” Forty years on, I wondered if the Special Anniversary Edition would have the same effect on a generation that’s seen it all before. Because Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Now have been exposed to so many movies since Easy Rider, films that copied and pushed the same boundaries that Easy Rider does, I worried that the ‘60s epic would be reduced to a cliché road movie.

Indeed in some ways, Easy Rider doesn’t hold up: there’s the scenes-as-excuses to exhibit Hopper and Fonda’s record collections, the caricatures of secondary and tertiary characters, and the disappointing ending. But watching Easy Rider still has its thrills, and that’s enough to make you wish that you, too, had a bike with a teardrop gas tank emblazoned with the American flag. 

Parts of Easy Rider flow together seamlessly like a dreamy acid trip, making one stop and marvel at how beautiful everything is (the sandstone buttes of Monument Valley, the wide, blue Western sky), while other parts are jarring, disjointed, and downright freaky (a drug experience gone wrong, hicks who are heavily armed). Blu-ray restoration means high definition and lush colors—each frame burns just a little bit brighter. A viewing of Easy Rider is greatly informed by the 1999 documentary Shaking the Cage included with the Blu-ray, so much so that it’s almost worth watching before the feature itself.

I was more forgiving of certain scenes and decisions after hearing (much older, a little wiser) Hopper and Fonda et al discussing the reasons behind the presentation of the film. Listening to the two of them talk about their experiences from the vantage point of the late nineties provides context for viewers new to the film, as well as old fans: not only as a reminder of the cultural revolution of the sixties, but an explanation of where Hopper and Fonda were coming from. Billy and Wyatt are closely intertwined to who Hopper and Fonda really were in 1968- - guys who rode motorcycles and listened to great records, looking for “freedom” in America.

Indeed, Shaking the Cage is excellent, and in some ways more fun to watch than the feature itself. The back story behind Easy Rider is as interesting as anything that happens in the film, and helps explain the cultural significance of the movie for those of us who didn’t live through the ‘60s. For those who did live through the ‘60s, well, the Blu-ray version of this classic will blow your mind, again.

In Shaking the Cage we learn that the New Orleans scenes towards the end of the film were shot at the beginning of production—before Fonda secured additional funds for the movie.  The New Orleans portion of the film is the backdrop for the drug trip shared by Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Captain America/Wyatt (Peter Fonda) with two prostitues (Karen Black and Toni Basil) in a cemetery shortly after Mardi Gras. It’s not difficult to believe Hopper’s claim that the scenes were shot on a shoestring budget while all the actors were actually high.

Fonda drapes his arms around a cold marble statue as he weeps about the real-life suicide of his mother. Karen strips between two gravestones, and they all throw themselves sacrificially over the crypts. This part of the film is perhaps the least successful, mostly because it’s boring, disconcerting, and overdoes the quick-cuts in an attempt to make things seem trippy.

Conversely, the rest of the film was shot (with a substantially bigger budget) after the scenes in New Orleans. The film opens in Mexico (actually shot in Taos, New Mexico).  Wyatt and Billy buy some unnamed drugs (likely cocaine) and then sell them quickly on a road near the airstrip at LAX.

Landscape-wise, Easy Rider is the mother of all road movies, and what follows are some beautiful sequences of our boys riding across what Fonda calls “John Ford’s America”. The scenic portions of the film are set to the popular music of the time (The Byrds, Jimi Hendrx, Fraternity of Men, The Band, Jefferson Airplane and many more), and makes you want to take off with Billy and Wyatt ride to helmet-less and utterly free through the wide-open country.

In a town that could be Needles, California, Bisbee, Arizona, or Truth-or-Consequences New Mexico, Captain America and Billy stop to have a meal with an old-time rancher and his family. Though enjoyable, the symbolism in these scenes is also frustratingly overt. The rancher is clearly an emblem of the dying old west and its John Wayne code of honor, while Wyatt and Billy are the new cowboys riding mechanical horses.To illustrate this, there’s a scene when Wyatt is changing a tire on his bike in the background of the barn, while the rancher appears in the foreground, shoeing his horse.

This blatant insistence in making sure the audience understands the messages of Easy Rider (that we all think we’re free but we’re really not, and drugs open your mind) pervades throughout the film and robs it of some of its moments of greatness. Granted, when the film was released, it was likely crucial to beat these points over the heads of viewers because no one had done it before. Forty years later, these methods seem obvious, now, and thus dates the film significantly, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

No ‘60s movie would be complete without a foray into hippie culture, so naturally, Captain America picks up a round-glasses and tie-dye wearing hitchhiker on his way back to a commune in New Mexico. The requisite depiction of free love follows. I was surprised to learn that the commune scenes were not shot in New Mexico, like the road leading up to it, but rather in Malibu.

While Wyatt is content to hang around the compound, Billy is restless, a little unhinged (as he is throughout) and anxious to get going. Before they leave for good, the boys bring two women from the commune to an old brick hot spring pool to skinny dip. In what is perhaps the most purely joyous scene in the movie, the four of them swim naked and unselfconscious under a desert sky. Indeed, the scene is almost too one-dimensionally blissful in light of the rest of the movie.

The tone of Easy Rider shifts substantially when Wyatt and Billy leave the West and journey to Texas, en route to New Orleans.

Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of George Hanson, an ACLU lawyer whom the boys meet in jail, is one of the best parts of the movie. Nicholson’s droll George is hilarious, smart, and refreshingly naturalistic against Fonda and Hopper’s occasionally strained performances. As he usually does, Nicholson reminds us why he’s a great actor: in the scene where Billy and Wyatt offer him marijuana for the first time, it’s not a stretch for the viewer to believe George has never tried pot before.

After donning a gold football helmet, George joins the motorcycle duo and recommends they head for a whorehouse in New Orleans. They stop in small-town Louisiana for a bite, and encounter garden-variety redneck bigotry at a small café. The male patrons, wearing trucker hats and plaid, loudly mock Billy’s long hair, and all three men’s clothing. “Queers,” is stage-whispered more than a few times, but a gaggle of high school girls crowded around a nearby booth giggle over how cute they think the guys are.

The three of them hightail it out of the café without eating, and set up camp on the outskirts of town, where George smokes grass for the first time beside the campfire. Before going to sleep, George comments that the people in town mocked them because they’re afraid of the freedom they represent. He says that while Americans often purport to revere freedom, they’re terrified of anyone who actually exemplifies living free.

That evening, the men from town find the camp and bludgeon George to death, while leaving Wyatt and Billy with only a few bruises. George is killed because he’s the traitorous native son, while Wyatt and Billy are transitory and present less of a threat to their way of life. Wyatt and Billy take off after vaguely promising each other they’ll get George’s effects back to his family.

George’s murder is more poignant and in keeping with the tone of the film than Captain America and Billy’s untimely roadside demise. The Bonnie and Clyde-esque ending (brutal, stark and fast) seems tacked on to the picture, and doesn’t serve the same purpose that George’s does—it’s a random killing by an old man with a neck goiter who apparently doesn’t like hippies or motorcycles.

The evening before they die, Wyatt says to Billy “we blew it” though Billy doesn’t really understand what he means. Not content to end the story on this subtle note, the boys leave us in a decidedly more dramatic fashion. The last shot was taken by László Kovács from a helicopter pulling away from the scene, and was apparently quite difficult to achieve. While the parting shot is indeed tremendous, Easy Rider is less successful than it might be because it uneasily occupies the territory between straight-up narrative, and dreamy, non-linear meditation on its cultural moment.

Certain scenes exemplify this moment so well, it’s not surprising that the film was added to the National Film Registry in 1998. Still, what happens in New Orleans and in the final scene must be taken with a grain of salt—unless you’re on acid.

The 40th Anniversary Blu-ray edition comes packaged with a 32-page booklet detailing the music of the movie, mini-biographies of Fonda, Hopper, Nicholson and co-writer Terry Southern, some choice stills, and an essay entitled Born To Be Wild: Freedom and Captivity in Hollywood Post-Easy Rider.

The Blu-ray restoration is gorgeous. We can enjoy sunsets in color so vivid and saturated it almost hurts, and the high definition fully renders every bit of gravel on the asphalt. Visually, Easy Rider is an absolute pleasure to watch, (due in no small part to László Kovács’ superb camera work) showcasing some of the best scenery the open road has to offer. The more romantic aspects (Monument Valley) of Easy Rider really shine in Blu-ray—the difference is nearly as noticeable as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was post cleaning.

Dennis Hopper’s commentary is interesting and remarkably subdued. His commentary is spare, and several moments will go by with no voice-over. We hear about the reasons for using certain songs, the cinematographer László Kovács, and thoughtful personal reflections. Clearly, Hopper has calmed down over the years, but still retains the spirit from his freewheeling wilder days.

Also included is movie-IQ, an optional random facts feature which can be turned on while one watches the movie. Though some viewers might find it distracting, movie-IQ presents little tidbits in real time throughout the film.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/116142-easy-rider-40th-anniversary/