EASY RIDER - Blu-ray review

An indie film that became the spokesperson for a decade when Hollywood was preoccupied with other concerns.

James Plath's picture
James
Plath

No film evokes the Sixties more than "Easy Rider," and no film from that period--which historians identify as the years between the Kennedy assassination and Nixon resignation--has been glamorized as much.

Most reviewers took their cues from publicity that described Captain America (Peter Fonda) and his chopper-riding sidekick Billy (Dennis Hopper) as two free spirits seeking freedom or trying to discover America . . . and what they discover isn't pretty, except when they encounter other marginal or counterculture types. But watching this 40th anniversary Blu-ray, I was struck by the fact that the film begins in Mexico (where the pair buys cocaine to sell to someone across the border) and has a pretty straight trajectory after that. They're on their way to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and the drug deal presumably financed their trip. Trying to find themselves, or America? I think not.

I was a freshman in college when "Easy Rider" was released. In 1969, people were rediscovering Jack Kerouac's Beat-generation autobiographical novels On the Road and The Dharma Bums. Hippie-style road trips became as popular as pot. That year, a bunch of us hopped freight trains to Tijuana for spring break, and another group made the popular trek to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. People we knew at other colleges were doing the same thing. The trip to Mardi Gras wasn't so much a pilgrimage or a conscious social statement as it was a drug-addled adventure. And while at the time Timothy Leary and other professors were encouraging their students to take hallucinogenic drugs--things like LSD, mescaline, and peyote buttons--to expand their minds, and pot and hashish were as common as beer and wine, it was a hardcore group far-removed from the hippies I knew who did cocaine. Five years later, maybe, but not then. Then it was all about flower power: sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. And free love.

So I don't see two guys in search of themselves or America when I watch "Easy Rider." I see two guys financing the same kind of trip that others took, the only way they knew. I see an accurate portrait of the hippie drug culture that, for a while, produced as many drifters as the Depression spawned boxcar adventures. If you were going to teach a class on the Sixties and could only fit one film into the syllabus, "Easy Rider" would be an easy choice.

For one thing, there's that free love and drug-sharing thing that happened as a matter of course. Now, gangs control drugs, and drugs are so expensive that I can't imagine users sharing as freely. Back then, a nickel bag literally meant a five-dollar plastic sandwich bag that contained about three fingers of marijuana. Then, when people you knew or strangers drifted into town and ran into you, or vice versa, whoever had whatever kind of drug, it was a shared, communal thing . . . a kind of portable communion for this crazy new religion of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Crazy as it sounds, there was a spiritual aspect to it, and communes that felt like placid oases weren't all that uncommon. So "Easy Rider" really does capture the drug and free-love atmosphere of the age.

But the Sixties was also a golden age in music, and I can't think of another movie in which the soundtrack plays such a dominant role. It's not just background music. The songs propel the story forward, taking the place of narrative and dialogue, both of which are fairly limited. It's not a music video, but you really have to watch this film to appreciate the importance that music plays. It's a '60s time capsule: "The Pusher" and "Born to Be Wild," by Steppenwolf; "I Wasn't Born to Follow," by The Byrds; "The Weight," by The Band; "If You Want to Be a Bird," by The Holy Modal Rounders; "Don't bogart (that joint, my friend, pass it over to) Me," by Fraternity of Man; "If Six Was Nine," by The Jimi Hendrix Experience; "Let's Turkey Trot," by Little Eva; "Kyrie Eleison," by The Electric Prunes; "Flash, Bam, Pow," by The Electric Flag"; and "It's Alright Ma" and "Ballad of Easy Rider," by Roger McGuinn.

As for the statement that this film makes about America in the Sixties? It doesn't strike me as all that shocking. Just as Captain America, Billy, and the world's most famous tag-along (a very young Jack Nicholson) stick their noses inside a bar full of rednecks and find that for their own safety they'd better skeedaddle, I remember a time when I was driving home with my New York City friend. I had long hair and a beard, and he had a soul patch. And when, en route, we walked into a little bar in Wyoming and asked for a beer, all eyes were on us. And those eyes were saying that they meant to do us harm. We drank those beers in record, try-to-look-casual time and then, once we cleared the door, we ran to the car. As we drove away, men filled the streets and a shot was fired. We kept going, fast as we could, to get on the Interstate and speed our way back to civilization. And ours was not an isolated experience, so even the novel's social statement rings true. It's just that, unfortunately, you could make the same kind of statement today. America hasn't gotten any more tolerant or any less violent. In fact, it's gotten worse. And that's what makes "Easy Rider" so timeless, unfortunately. I can't watch this film now without thinking of Matthew Shepard tortured and left hanging on barbed-wire fence in 1998 Wyoming, just because he was gay. Whether you're a black who wanders into the wrong white neighborhood or a white who takes a wrong turn into a black area, you're not going to be met with a smile and a joint. And that's the most striking thing about this counterculture film.

There's something for fans of method acting, too, because Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson reportedly smoked the real thing on camera. Fonda drove his bike around L.A. the week before shooting, wearing his Captain America gear, and, of course, he was pulled over a bunch of times by police. But even if this film had no period relevance it would be of interest, because it was the first film co-written by Fonda and Hopper, and the first film directed by Hopper.

In the end, it's perhaps one gesture--a middle finger extended--that most places this film in the context of the Sixties, the way Ken Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion" flipped those beat-you-down rednecks the bird, and Cool Hand Luke made light of his own situation with a verbal flip-off: "What we have here is a failure . . . to communicate." That failure persists, but maybe it began to be a pronounced problem in the Sixties, which is why the decade remains a pivotal one. And this movie remains a Sixties staple.

"Easy Rider" is rated R for . . . well, sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

Video:
For a film that was shot on the cheap 40 years ago, "Easy Rider" looks great in Blu-ray. There's grain, certainly, but the colors are bright and true, skin-tones look accurate, black levels are strong, and there's a nice sense of 3-dimensionality. It's by far the best this film has ever looked, and I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. "Easy Rider" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

Audio:
The soundtrack is strong, too. This time Sony went with an English, French, or Portuguese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless audio, that features clear dialogue, reasonably good distribution across the speakers, decent ambient sound, and a nice concert-style presentation of the music. And really, that's what matters most. An alternate audio option is a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 track and, for purists, the original English Mono. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Extras:
"Easy Rider" comes to Blu-ray in videobook format. It's packaged in book format, with the plastic inside back cover holding the disc, and a 35-page full-color booklet zeroing in on the importance of the soundtrack and giving bios of the main characters. There aren't an overwhelming number of extras, however. An hour-long documentary, "Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage" is presented in standard def and covers the drugs, the location filming, the casting, the music, and the legacy. The only other feature, other than BD-Live, is the audio commentary by Hopper, who covers just about every base imaginable, including some surprising ones in which he compares the structure to a Western. It's an intelligent commentary track that's worth listening to. I'm not so sure about the BD-Live features, which is basically the MovieIQ thing again, which supposedly offers "up to date" information. Call me a cynic, but I don't buy it. If a 40-year-old film needs ticker-tape real-time updating, then I'm a mongoose.

Bottom Line:
More than anything else, the thing that gives "Easy Rider" its legendary status is that it's an indie film that became the spokesperson for a decade when Hollywood was preoccupied with other concerns.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
7
Film Value
7