Easy Rider: Special Edition Review
A man went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere...
It’s an aesthetic I’ve never experienced; it takes a certain kind of person to achieve such free-spirited nirvana. The wind in your face. A friend by your side. Just you, the open road, and your motorcycle. Today, this image of the “American Dream” seems clichéd and unpalatable. It’s certainly a pipe dream, but compared to modern society’s hunger for destruction, and with the political climate steadily growing worse, the old hippie sensibilities seem welcome. Easy Rider arrived like a bullet to the heart of Hollywood in 1969. A true piece of history captured on celluloid, Easy Rider displays these emotions with force. It’s a glimpse into an era that some long to forget, but others long to relive. Easy Rider really is the apex of modern independent cinema - a film that encapsulates the 1960s for all that it represented; dragging a sense of urgency and foreboding along with it.
35 years after it first washed up in cinemas, it has become a highly regarded classic. Often imitated, but never really equalled, the shockwaves it left in the industry are still felt. ‘69 was the year of the Independents, when a whole generation of filmmakers picked up their cameras, and decided to create art from their own resources. It was the year of Woodstock too, and more importantly, a year of change. Amidst the death throes of the Vietnam war, the world was preparing for the onslaught of the ‘70s. Soon enough, cinema would be awash with brutality, urban chaos and stark cynicism. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were veterans of this generation. Something was clearly bubbling up inside of them - a need to say something. Anything. So when Fonda saw a photograph of a gleaming motorcycle, and a promise of freedom in the American outback, the bare bones for Easy Rider were established. Scripted by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern, the picture would become a cultural phenomenon, its potent message matched by the artistic gut-punch of Hopper’s direction. Few films are this important.
The story for the film - if you can call it that - is simplistic at best, but that’s what gives the picture a raw power. It doesn’t need to be complicated. This is a story about two lost souls striving to find freedom in the sprawling outback. The fact that they “never find America” is all the more wrenching because of it. We first meet our protagonists, Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), during a cocaine deal. Despite these nefarious activities, they need the money to pursue their dreams; to escape from monitored society. Soon enough, they hit the road, driving from town to town with an intention of reaching New Orleans, and the Mardis Gras celebrations. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker (Luke Askew), and drunken lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). Together, their dreams are slashed, seeing America in a whole new light...
There isn’t much I can say about Hopper’s film, that hasn’t been documented or theorised a million times over, but I’ll persist. Being a child of the ‘80s, I look at Easy Rider with a great deal of fascination. It’s a film to get lost in; its metaphors and overt social values exploding across the cinematic canvas. From the first sequence onward, the movie is dripping in symbolism. It’s pretty blatant even today, but much of its meaning is still relevant. Perhaps more so. The lead up to the opening credits is perhaps the most telling portion of the film. The introduction to the motorcycles is memorable enough; Wyatt’s souped-up chopper emblazoned with the American flag. The money being placed into the gas tank by Wyatt is one of the more notable flourishes - stating that money fuels the “American Dream”, and that it will ultimately leave it in flames. Just before they began their journey, Wyatt tosses his watch to the ground. For them, time will not exist. And then, Born to be Wild hits the soundtrack, and these legends were carved in stone.
The true meaning behind Easy Rider is summed up when Nicholson enters the fray. His performance as George Hanson is spellbinding (resulting in an Oscar nomination). His drunken rambling, while humorous, is laced with truth. In one of several campfire scenes, he tells the pair about freedom. It is certainly the main crux of the tale; Wyatt and Billy believe they are “free”, but come across hostility and violence wherever they go. They are treated like outlaws - their long hair and outlandish clothes setting them apart from the world. (It’s clear that the character names were meant to reference Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid). The hostility is certainly felt when they happen across a coffee shop, only to be insulted by the locals. The scene has monumental power, and a certain sense of realism - Hopper recruited the town’s real inhabitants, letting them cook up any insults they wanted. From this point onward, the idyllic road trip turns into a nightmare that steadily grows worse...
Setting up for the night after their run-in with the town’s sheriff, George is killed in his sleep - beaten to death by the locals. All they can do is carry on with the journey. This sparks a depressing shift in tone for the film; George was clearly killed for joining the “enemy”. When Wyatt and Billy reach New Orleans, things continue to spiral - taking LSD, they wander the graveyards aimlessly. This footage was shot in rather poor 16mm, and cut like a music video; giving way to an unusual medley of images showing their “trip”. It’s a horrid display, since Wyatt and Billy have been forever effected. They seem different, and for the first time, are at odds with their surroundings. This leads us to the films famous conclusion - the death of the main characters. On the road once more, they are shot down by a gung-ho redneck, who made fun of their appearance. The final image rises from Wyatt’s burning motorcycle - the American flag essentially going up in flames - the ultimate metaphor. As the poster tag line revealed, Wyatt and Billy “went looking for America”, but “couldn’t find it anywhere”. They’ve been rejected by their country, and freedom is simply a state of mind, not a reality. When Wyatt told Billy they “blew it”, he meant it.
(End of Spoilers)
Easy Rider may be plush with social commentary, but it’s also a well-made picture. Shot by the gifted Lazlo Kovacs, the film looks suitably elegant. The budget certainly didn’t hinder the photography, since the backdrops are spectacular. Of course, it appears that many of the effective shots were flukes. Hopper’s direction enabled the cast and crew to improvise frequently, giving the material an immediacy. It works. The soundtrack helps too, full of classic rock and country melodies that aid the films emotional arcs. They are occasionally out of place (perhaps the only area of the film that has dated), but for the most part, they suit the mood. They provide an added punch to the road shots, which were lampooned to perfection in the recent Starsky and Hutch.
Picking faults in Easy Rider isn’t easy for me. I’ve read many comments on the film, and the same points are always raised. The commune sequence, in which Luke Askew’s drifter shows them his way of life, lasts a little too long, slowing down the pace. That said, the film moves along brilliantly, despite Hopper’s mode of editing, which is a “love it or hate it” affair, borrowing from the French New Wave in its style. The ending will also polarise viewers. It is quick, anti-climactic and rather brutal. But I don’t see how the film could have ended any other way - it’s a fitting denouement, that brings the message home.
Shot for a little under $500,000, Easy Rider later went on to make over ten times that, becoming the first independent film to be acquired and distributed by a Hollywood studio. Historically and culturally important, it hasn’t lost the ability to entertain, and in these times of jaded public opinion, it offers some potent food for thought. After the credits roll, it’s impossible not to feel something - it was designed to evoke response, and it still does. Essential viewing.
Presented in a beautiful book-style package, Columbia Tri-Star’s new release of Easy Rider is a first-rate collectable. Dubbed as a “35th Anniversary Special Edition”, it’s a wondrous sight to behold. Stuffed with memorabilia and insight, it should leave many fans satisfied.
The Look and Sound
The film disc is the previous DVD, though the label has been changed to match the interior of the set. Therefore, it’s the same transfer, and it still pleases. Columbia gave Easy Rider a superb anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) remaster, and its hard to believe that the materials are over three decades old. Also, you must consider the ridiculous low-budget of the film when viewing the transfer. With all this in mind, you’ll agree that it looks fantastic. The image is sharp, colourful and full of depth. Some of the cinematography is given new life - notice the harsh desert landscape, which practically glows from the heat; or those beautiful panoramic shots. The film is pretty much clear throughout, and only the Mardis Gras sequence sticks out (due to the use of different film stock, and stylistic methods). That aside, the transfer is a pleasure to witness - surprisingly low on grain for such an old film, and boasting the same clarity during the night time footage (those campfire discussions have never looked so good). As the famous saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, so I’m glad the same disc made its way into the set.
The previous audio tracks are included too. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and the original mono score, the tracks aren’t as vibrant as the transfer, but are effective all the same. The 5.1 track seems like the obvious choice, and it makes efficient use of the surrounds. Of course, activity on the speakers is low, but that was expected. The music is effortlessly projected, sounding rich and textured. However, some of the ambience is low, and there are instances where dialogue is hard to catch. That said, Columbia’s careful treatment is a pleasure, and few indie classics look or sound as good as this.
Owners of the previous release will already be familiar with some of the materials here, but Columbia provides us with a great deal extra, that certainly warrants the £20 price tag. In most respects, that dreaded “double dip” is worth it.
Audio Commentary by Dennis Hopper
The original track, that might have benefited from a group discussion. But as everyone knows, this is Hopper’s film. He is surprisingly low-key - he has certainly mellowed over the years, despite the characters he has portrayed. His memory for filming locations and cast/crew is admirable. However, the track is only truly interesting when it highlights the symbolic nature of the narrative, and Hopper offers some comments on filming in such guerrilla conditions. Casual fans might be disappointed though - the track is full of silence, and some of the details are repeated elsewhere. Still, it’s a recommended listen for Rider devotees...
“Shaking the Cage: The Making of Easy Rider”
This was always a great documentary, and it has stood up fairly well. Running for 65-minutes, it covers most areas you’d expect. It includes interviews with Hopper, Fonda, Lazlo Kovacs and Karen Black, among others. The absence of Jack Nicholson is a disappointment (but not unexpected), though the documentary makes up for this with some great insight and anecdotes. Most interesting, are the recollections of shooting the Mardis Gras footage, and the stories about smoking real pot and taking LSD are all present and correct. The group are still enthusiastic about the film, particularly when the documentary covers Easy Rider’s amazing success.
The movie disc finishes up with a selection of filmographies and “fact” pages for Hopper, Fonda, Nicholson and Black; all of which are worth skipping through (though haven’t been updated).
"Easy Riders, Raging Bulls"
This enthralling documentary is also available separately, and I have to applaud Columbia for including it here - while it scarcely covers Easy Rider, it documents the golden age of American cinema, charting the rise of the independents in the ‘60s, to the birth of the blockbuster in the ‘70s. Some reviews have been harsh for this film - produced by the BBC, and narrated by William H. Macy -but it entertained me throughout. It’s suitably glossy for a standalone production, and features some enlightening archival footage.
The crew assemble a great list of “talking heads”, that include the aforementioned Hopper, Fonda and Black, alongside Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Corman. The absence of Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas is a sore point, but they are ably assisted by old footage showing them in their “youth”. Martin Scorsese is also MIA, which is odd - he loves to talk about the industry and his work. But the documentary interested me nevertheless. It was certainly a wild time to be in show business. The drug craze is covered in-depth, and some of the comments are genuinely surprising. A major chunk of history is covered here (some say the best cinematic era), and documents everything from the rise of “auteur” directors, to the death of Sharon Tate. This is definitely worth seeing, and when treated as an “extra” it’s all the more appealing.
“BFI Modern Classics: Easy Rider” by Lee Hill
One of the many books produced by the BFI, the “Modern Classics” range is a renowned series, covering an admirable collection of titles. Lee’s documentation of Easy Rider is fascinating, and easily one of the better efforts. Heavily researched with the late screenwriter Terry Southern, the book places Easy Rider into its historical context while criticising the final product. Don’t let the small page count fool you - this is a book with much to say, and should convert anyone into an expert on the subject. By including this, Columbia have really spoilt us!
But that isn’t everything! Also in the box, are a collection of newly-printed postcards, and some liner notes that sum up the general consensus that Easy Rider is a bona-fide classic. A brilliant package.
If you’ve yet to see Easy Rider, and consider yourself an avid fan of cinema, you should run - not walk - to the video store. Some say it’s dated, I say it’s timeless. Either way, Easy Rider is a seminal work that deserves a place on your shelf. Purchase recommended.