Should I Watch..? 'Easy Rider'
What's the big deal?
Easy Rider is an independently produced road movie released in 1969 and was directed by star Dennis Hopper. Produced by co-star Peter Fonda, the film follows two bikers who travel throughout the southern United States with the proceeds from a recent drug deal. The film was largely improvised between the cast with a script developed in conjunction with Terry Southern. With global takings in excess of $60 million, the film not only spoke to the contemporary youth of the time but also the numerous Hollywood studios who realised that low-budget independent cinema could yield significant returns. It has since become both a landmark picture depicting the Sixties counterculture and also helped usher in a new era in the early Seventies that introduced more auteur directors such as Brian De Palma, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin. Such is the film's influence and importance that it was selected for preservation at the National Film Registry at the US Library Of Congress in 1998.
What's it about?
Wyatt and Billy are two bikers who are very much part of the hippie culture of the late Sixties. The two of them have just scored a big drug deal in Los Angeles and decide to ride to New Orleans to celebrate in style during the city's Mardi Gras. Swapping their pick-up truck for two distinctive bikes, the pair carefully disguise the cash inside Wyatt's Stars-and-Stripes decorated gas tank and head off in a grassy haze. Living off the land and relying on the generosity of strangers, Wyatt and Billy encounter a run-down commune led by a hitch-hiker they pick up who gives them some LSD as a thank-you.
However, their free-wheeling lifestyle causes offence to some of the more bigoted members of society and eventually find themselves in jail. After befriending their fellow inmate, alcoholic lawyer George Hanson, the three of them then resume their journey to New Orleans where they discover that George's view on life isn't so different from their own. But will the three of them get to the Big Easy with their continued use of drugs and growing opposition to their presence?
Wyatt / Captain America
Stranger on highway
Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper & Terry Southern
Release Date (UK)
17th October, 1969
Academy Award Nominations
Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Best Original Screenplay
What's to like?
For a film improvised by a cast mostly stoned for real, Easy Rider surprises as much as it bemuses at times. The film has a noticeably different vibe to more mainstream cinema at the time with jump-cuts, flashbacks and flash-forwards, improvised dialogue and a soundtrack composed of popular songs at the time instead of an original score - all things which are now commonplace in movies. The film has a stark beauty to it - I especially liked the shot of the two riding their hogs along a desert highway and the sky is awash with colour as the sun is going down, the horizon populated by jet-black mountains and rocky outcrops. It's an easy film to watch, at least for the most part, due to its laid-back charm. However, the film is actually quite angry which might have something to do with the tyrannical behaviour of debutante director Hopper. The film finds little sympathy for any of its characters and even punishes its two lovable leads with a brutal and traumatising bad trip in a ramshackle graveyard.
Fonda and Hopper have great chemistry and deliver some suitably stoned performances but the film belongs to Nicholson who makes an instant impact. His southern drawl, quirky tics and mannerisms make the role his own and gives the film a way in for viewers who don't use and abuse drugs. His broad smile and goofy behaviour also gives the film a warm and sunny centre, wonderfully scored by some classic tunes of the time including the now iconic 'Born To Be Wild' by Steppenwolf. It's impossible to separate the song from the film, such is the film's standing. Today, it feels like a snapshot of a specific time in American history like an actual hippie still living that lifestyle today. It might be old-fashioned but you can still have a laugh.
- Many of the extras in the film were genuine hippies or townspeople recruited on the spot by Hopper. For many of the film's cast, this would be their only film appearance. The movie also marks the only film appearance of music tycoon and convicted murderer Phil Spector who Hopper admits had two things in his favour: his Rolls Royce and his personal bodyguard who both appeared in the film for free.
- Fonda wore the Captain America jacket around LA for a week to give it a more lived-in look. He also rode the custom Stars-and-Stripes bike to get used to it as it was apparently difficult to ride. He was apparently pulled over by police several times because of the way he looked.
- Hopper, Fonda and Nicholson legitimately smoked marijuana during the shoot. Hopper put his erratic behaviour and paranoia as director down to marijuana not being his drug of choice while Nicholson claims that the three of them smoked 155 joints during the campfire scene.
- The film only used four bikes throughout the shoot. One was destroyed for the film's climax while the other three were stolen and dismantled, presumably before the thieves knew of their historical significance. The demolished bike was rebuilt and has an estimated value of $1-1.2 million.
What's not to like?
Difficult to criticise a film as beloved and important as Easy Rider but it's perhaps lost some of its cultural significance these days. The film (perhaps deliberately) feels like a fever dream and often doesn't make a whole lot of sense to Millennial squares like me. It reminded me a lot of Vanishing Point, another road movie that fudges a story through a drug-addled haze. Both films rely on symbolism and metaphor and unless you fully understand the film's context, it's easy to find yourself wondering what exactly it is you're watching. Being a child of the Eighties, I was ignorant about hippie communes in California while the apparent threat in biker gangs has been long consigned to history and bad films like Cobra.
The other problem is the film's pacing which is also wayward and somewhat plodding, perhaps not unsurprisingly. Given the amount of drugs consumed, it's remarkable that a film appeared at all, let alone one as distinct and influential as this. However, the film also offers plenty to shock due to the narrative weaving this way and that. I was unprepared for the film suddenly to veer into much darker territory, signposted by George and Billy's conversation about what they represent. The film's ending is also much darker than I supposed, obviously providing the downer that usually accompanies drug use (or so I'm told!
Should I watch it?
Regardless of the film's strengths and weaknesses, Easy Rider has somehow become one of the most iconic and important films ever made. The film is reflective of US society at the time and possibly has plenty of things to say about drug use, communal living and hippie culture. But these days, the film feels like Willie Nelson - still clinging to a lifestyle that only he can really remember, no matter how much the kids laugh. Having said that, I enjoyed the film and appreciated the effort into making the film a suitably trippy experience.
Great For: hippies, stoners, bike owners, obscure Sixties bands
Not So Great For: your grandparents, your kids, the authorities
What else should I watch?
Hippies have long been the butt of jokes in cinema ever since the Summer of Love ended. Often depicted as peace-loving, drug-taking losers, their messages about peace, love and harmony have been consigned to a history that judges them too harshly. Remember how Austin Powers was mocked for his Sixties lifestyle by people in the Nineties? But I genuinely don't know what to recommend because I haven't seen any films that are so heavily steeped in counter-culture as Easy Rider - the closest I would argue is Vanishing Point which is an equally enthralling but trippy tale of a man apparently forced to drive across the States and discovering just how far gone America has gone.
Fonda's career as an actor might not have brought him the same success as his father Henry as it often veered from timeless classics like this or the earlier biker movie The Wild Angels to more forgettable fodder like Dance Of The Dwarfs. But he could never fully escape the image of one of cinema's coolest dudes riding a classy bike through some beautiful scenery. He often appear with a motorbike of some sort throughout his career with appearances in The Cannonball Run, Bodies, Rest & Motion, Ghost Rider and Wild Hogs among others. However, his most critically acclaimed performance came in the powerful drama Ulee's Gold where he plays a man struggling to hold his family together in the face of his son's attempts to turn away from gang life.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox