Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Easy Rider is the watershed movie that dismantled the studio way of doing things in 1969.
Executives thought they'd tapped the youth market by making Juvenile Delinquency films, Rock 'n Roll
musicals, Beach Party pictures, Biker films, and finally Acid Head movies, but Easy Rider
threw them for loop - this movie about a pair of drug dealers' aimless wanderings through the South
packed audiences into theaters. There wasn't a single thing in it that a production chief could imitate
for a knock-off follow-up. They threw their hands up and started replacing old pros with guys with long
hair and bell-bottomed pants. It was a time of clueless opportunity. As seen in the extras on
THX 1138, Warners opened their
doors for Francis Coppola's Zoetrope pictures to make eight movies - only to slam them shut after
the first flop.
Easy Rider has good qualities (mainly Jack Nicholson), but is far better known for what
it's not rather than what
it is. It wasn't made by the establishment (check), it accepted drugs as a
lifestyle (check) and it's only message was that America was Evil (double check). In 1969, that
was all that disaffected youth needed to know. 1
Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) make a huge score bringing in drugs
from Mexico for a buyer in a Rolls-Royce (Phil Spector). They hide the loot in Wyatt's motorcycle
and set off East to find America. They interact with a commune, pick up embittered, alcoholic ACLU
lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) and attract the hostility of the locals when they enter Texas
and the deep South. Their objective is a whorehouse in New Orleans, and from there, who knows?
Easy Rider started as a project by two Hollywood insiders trying to find the next rung on a
career ladder. Promising actor Dennis Hopper was reduced to doing an occasional bad-guy appearance
in big pictures (True Grit) while struggling in the AIP trenches with Peter Fonda, a pretty boy
with no discernable acting ability but blessed with a fine Hollywood name. Along with their co-star
Jack Nicholson, they'd been scraping along, name talent lacking a career springboard.
Easy Rider has good writing and a little style but mostly was the right movie in the right place
at the right time. The style can be attributed to the camera of László Kovács and
the writing to willing scribe Terry Southern, a man-on-fire liberal looking for an opportunity to work
without studio interference. On that score Columbia ended up being much more reasonable than
American-International; the house of Arkoff was not seeing big profits with sex and drugs, and
interfered with Roger Corman's movies so much that he just quit directing a couple of years later.
Easy Rider went out with all of its drug use and nudity intact.
Is the movie any good? Fonda and Hopper free-form the road movie aspect with nice travelling shots
backed by their favorite songs from the period - Easy Rider is noted as the first movie to
use hit singles as soundtrack material, rather than stop-the-show musical numbers. Since any song
sounds good over a pair of motorcycles on the open road it's a smart gambit, if not great
filmmaking. Four years later George Lucas and Walter Murch would set the standard for sound-tracking
with greatest hits in American Graffiti. 3
Terry Southern reportedly ceded sole script authorship to Fonda and Hopper (no humble souls, they)
and his dialogue is only as good as who is saying it. Jack Nicholson bursts forth as a great
interpreter of Cassavetes-like character material, completely overturning his earlier ten years as
one of the youth movement's least-promising talents; time and again he came off as stiff, forced
and silly. He nails his character, the film's sole 'normal' hero who earns the respect of his
too-hip road buddies.
Dennis Hopper delivers his fast-talking BS brand of patter and is just fine, even though his character
isn't as a coherent as Nicholson's. Wyatt and Billy are unknowing
prophets, man, voyagers on the highway of life .... they don't explain themselves, man, it's, like
your job to get into their heads.
Although Peter Fonda strikes the perfect pose as Wyatt aka Captain America in a leather
outfit with the American flag on his back, he has the same empty, clueless face that's dogged him
throughout his career, and can't handle dialogue to save his soul. Every word he speaks comes out like
a lead ingot, especially the 'far out' phrases. He does look convincingly stoned now and then.
Doubtless many a critic more savvy than I can reach into Easy Rider and come out with an
analysis that elevates the movie to the status of The Odyssey. When looked at objectively, it's
a road film with three or four okay dialogue scenes, some bad escapades in a commune (although the
wonderful Luana Anders is there, neglected as usual) and several very credible run-ins with
Southern rednecks. Toni Basil and Karen Black enliven the New Orleans scenes but the LSD party in
the graveyard is no great showcase for acting. I'm told many viewers think it's the best presentation
of an acid trip on film, however.
There's nothing particularly cinematic happening here. I'm not moved by Hopper's visuals in the
graveyard acid trip or his comical stagger-cut scene transitions (do I detect the influence of
The Monkees here? There is one near-miraculous shot of Fonda's chopper disintegrating as it
flies by the camera at high speed, and a few serendipitous visuals on the road, but that's it. What
the movie neatly avoids is the usual "it's happening" baloney found in the AIP losers like
Psych-Out and parts of the not-bad
The Trip. It drops any notion of
explaining itself through exposition or other audience-friendly techniques. It doesn't provide a road
map for its own content, or a viewer surrogate character to interpret events for us.
I was only 17 when an older cousin, a real biker type, took me to Easy Rider. I had the typical
teen reaction of the time - I liked it but couldn't say why. My cousin wasn't very hippie-friendly and
had no use for it at all. I still like the film, in a way, but there's definitely something missing in
this 'too hip' road trip by a pair of egotistical Hollywood boys. Wyatt's final utterance, "We blew it
man, we blew it" is as fake as phony 'right on' movie dialogue gets.
So Easy Rider is much more significant than it is 'good.' There was The Graduate a couple
of years before, but this is the movie that made Nixon's Silent Majority decide that there was
a thing called The Generation Gap.
Columbia TriStar's 35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Easy Rider appears to be a repackaging
of older special edition goodies in a package that includes a second CD with six or seven songs from
the soundtrack 4,
and one of those cool BFI pamphlet-film books with an excellent extended essay by
Lee Hill. I never realized that those books were the same size as DVDs, very clever.
Charles Kiselyak's 1999 docu Shaking the Cage is an uncritical but beautifully constructed
opportunity for Fonda and Hopper to tell the tale of their coup de cinema. Fonda is gratingly full
of himself and his accounts of drug use on the road are nowhere near as amusing as he thinks
they are. But Hopper allows other testimony to affirm that he was a director on a power trip and an
unforgivable control freak. He says that after cutting the film for a year (!) (!!!) Fonda,
Nicholson and others took over and whittled the picture down to its final modest running time. At
least the film is not an overblown endurance test. Hopper told his friends to never let him cut a movie again! 2
The enhanced transfer looks fine and the audio has been remixed in 5.1 for those of you with a yen for
the mellow lyrics of Bob Dylan sung by Roger McGuire, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, etc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Easy Rider rates:
Movie: Good +
Supplements: Commentary by Dennis Hopper, docu Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage,
production notes, soundtrack CD, BFI book Easy Rider by Lee Hill
Packaging: Double disc (1 DVD , 1 CD in slim Keep case with book in card sleeve.
Reviewed: October 21, 2004
1. This wisdom is from William Bayer's
great book Breaking In, Selling Out, Dropping Dead, and not this author. I love America.
2. I think his assessment is true. I saw dailies for two months on
The Hot Spot and thought Hopper was directing a potentially great movie. The final edit of
the picture throws out most of what was good and wastes time on all kinds of annoying and unnecessary
material. So let me re-cut it, Dennis ... there's a great picture there. Really.
3. Song Lyric from I Wasn't Born to Follow: "And if you think I'm
ready .... you may lead me to the chasm ... where the rivers of our vision ... flow into one
another." At age 18, I thought that was the greatest sex come-on ever committed to vinyl.
4. ... and some cover-version replacements and a from-left-field Moody Blues
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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