Two very different films encapsulated the spirit of youth in the late sixties: "The Graduate" and "Easy Rider." While "The Graduate" concentrated on describing the dilemmas of a majority of upwardly mobile white Americans, "Easy Rider" struck a nerve with the country's more alienated and rebellious faction. Looked at from today's perspective, "Easy Rider" seems positively mired down in the myth and romanticism of the hippie movement, but it still gives viewers a good feel for where America was going in 1969.
A couple of young men strike a rich drug deal in L.A. and with their newfound wealth decide to travel across the states by motorcycle to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) is laid-back and mellow, looking like Captain America draped in the colors of the flag. Billy (Dennis Hopper, who also directed) is his more aggressive, more impatient buddy. Together, they parody the old Western hero (Wyatt, as in Earp) and his comical sidekick as they make an odyssey through the heartland of America in a story that helped define for many filmgoers the country's new cultural lifestyles. "Yeah, well," says Wyatt, "I'm just getting my thing together."
For a lot of folks back then, the movie was a revealing look at America's alternative society, its counterculture. It all seemed quite revolutionary and gave young audiences at the time a feeling that Hollywood was finally telling it like it was. Now, the movie seems filled with vacuous clichés, often coming across as no more than quaintly nostalgic. Time has taken its toll, and much of the material is frankly dated. The whole dropout, hippie movement is now passé, with its back-to-nature communes, wild costumes, free love, pot smoking, and acid tripping.
Worse, the film deals too obviously in common stereotypes, a technique that may have been necessary in 1969 to make its points but anymore appears heavy-handed. Every hippie is a generous, kindhearted, peace-loving soul; every small-town white male is a bigoted, murderous, redneck yokel; and every young girl wants a ride on a motorcycle. About the best part of the picture is still Jack Nicholson as George Hanson, an alcoholic lawyer who decides to chuck his practice and take off for Mardi Gras with the boys. He was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The film was also nominated for its screenplay by Fonda, Hopper, and Terry Southern.
"Easy Rider" was a low-budget affair when it was made. It cost about $400,000 and returned something like $17,000,000! It even won an award in 1969 at Cannes for Best Film By a New Director. Certainly, the camera work holds up better these days than the script, thanks to the efforts of noted cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs.
Columbia TriStar have given their best shot at replicating the original picture quality in a 1.69:1 screen ratio that is bright and generally well projected. However, there is a touch of fuzziness and grain that may or may not have been intentional in the master prints.
The sound choices are Dolby Surround Stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1, the latter a remix that puts more ambient information into the rear channels and generally opens up the sonics a little better than regular stereo. The audio still shows its age, nevertheless, being somewhat bright and thin, occasionally raucous and glaring, slightly nasal and raspy, and sometimes hollow. The reason for the variations no doubt have a lot to do with the variety of popular songs and music that was used, all of which reflect the taste of the times. I had quite forgotten an old favorite: "Don't Bogart that joint, my friend; pass it over to me."
In addition to the film, there is a lengthy documentary, "Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage," featuring interviews with Fonda, Hopper, and many others of the cast and crew. I was interested to note that a number of the actors in the movie had never appeared in films before. Hopper wanted to inject an element of verisimilitude into the proceedings by picking up non-actors en route to appear in the story. The guys at the cafe who hassle the boys, for instance, were untrained locals, as was the fellow with the shotgun in the film's closing moment. There is also a full-feature commentary by Dennis Hopper one can listen to, some production notes, cast biographies, and Columbia TriStar's usual assortment of subtitles and scene selections.
"We blew it," says Wyatt to Billy at the end of the film, just before the couple's famous demise. I suppose he meant they blew any chance they had to be something good, something of value, something better than what they were. Instead, they sold dope and used the money on self indulgence. If the movie has any lasting impact, it is for that simple message rather than for any overwrought sentiments about societal hatreds that now seem pretty simplistic.