Judge Dan Mancini was born to be wild.
Our reviews of America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published December 20th, 2010), Easy Rider (published November 13th, 1999), and Easy Rider (Blu-Ray) (published November 12th, 2009) are also available.
"It's hard to be free when you're bought and sold in the marketplace."—George Hanson
By the time Easy Rider was released in 1969, a revolution was already underway in Hollywood, with young filmmakers struggling against the old studio system. Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn had made Bonnie and Clyde two years before; Mike Nichols's The Graduate had already made waves and introduced Dustin Hoffman as a new kind of leading man; and Roman Polanski had freaked out audiences and pissed off Sinatra with Rosemary's Baby. But it was Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper's low-budget biker flick that blew the doors off the old system and launched the New Hollywood era in earnest.
A collaboration between Fonda, Hopper, and screenwriter Terry Southern (The Magic Christian), Easy Rider has a troubled production history that began with Roger Corman, who was interested in financing it based on his previous work with Fonda in The Wild Angels and the Jack Nicholson-penned The Trip. From Corman's point-of-view, Easy Rider would be just another entry in his growing catalog of outlaw biker flicks. Fonda and Hopper saw it as something more. When the B-movie king pulled out of the deal—probably because of Hopper's erratic and sometimes violent behavior—the picture fell into the lap of Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, the men behind The Monkees. Their $360,000 investment (not to mention their tireless efforts keeping Hopper's directorial excesses in check) paid huge dividends. Easy Rider was a massive box office hit. More importantly, the little biker film's financial success shattered the Hollywood status quo, was the death knell of the old studio system, and gave young filmmakers unprecedented artistic freedom over the next decade.
Facts of the Case
Easy Rider is the road picture story of modern outlaws Wyatt/Captain America (Peter Fonda, Ulee's Gold) and Billy (Dennis Hopper, Blue Velvet). After scoring major cash in a cocaine deal with the Connection (record producer Phil Spector), they set off across the American south on their choppers looking for a paradise in which to live out the rest of lives. Their journey brings them in contact with all manner of interesting characters, from the enigmatic and philosophical Stranger on the Highway (Luke Askew, Frailty), who leads them to a hippie commune, to noble farmers, to seemingly-square ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), to hostile deep-south rednecks willing to commit murder over the length of our heroes' hair. Billy's yen for the Mardi Gras bacchanal keeps the duo on the road and on the hunt for their utopian dream. When they arrive in New Orleans, they hook up with prostitutes Karen (Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces) and Mary (choreographer and one-hit wonder Toni Basil) from Madame Tinkertoy's House of Blue Lights for an acid trip that foreshadows the end of their journey.
"We blew it."
Those enigmatic words, spoken by Captain America in the lead-up to Easy Rider's fiery climax, not only sum up the film but, in retrospect, provide a startlingly accurate prophesy of the end of the New Hollywood era that had only just begun. Wyatt is responding to Billy's exuberant insistence, while relaxing by a campfire in the dead of night, that they've made it—they're rich and they need only find a place where happiness is possible for the rest of their days, where they can escape the hassles of the system (read: capitalism). There's been endless speculation over the years about what Wyatt means, about how he and Billy blew it. Perhaps he recognizes they haven't escaped the system at all, only found a way to exploit it to their own benefit. Their travels have brought them in contact with a menagerie of characters on the fringes of capitalism, trying to live outside it. The most obvious example is the hippies at the commune to which the Stranger on the Highway leads them. They plant seeds in arid, dusty ground, dreaming of children-of-the-earth self-sufficiency. Billy has no faith their labor will be rewarded with a viable crop; Wyatt believes they'll defy the odds, and break free of the American consumer culture. Billy's urge to make it to Mardi Gras, to indulge his appetites, pulls them away from the commune and back on the road, seeking a final destination. It's telling that, once in New Orleans, the duo spends their time with prostitutes, trading the commune's free-love utopianisms (though there are subtle hints that Wyatt's continued presence among the hippies, and the women's attraction to him, might eventually erupt into jealousy-fueled conflict among the men) for a short-term indulgence mediated by the almighty dollar. In the end, Wyatt and Billy are exposed as capitalists. They are the system; their motorcycles can't take them to a place of escape.
Similarly, the New Hollywood generation didn't break out of the old Hollywood system so much as they took it over and became it. Their revolutionary films in the early '70s became increasingly self-indulgent as their power and wealth increased and they retreated into cloistered mansions in the California hills. The dream of a smaller, more personal American cinema didn't just evaporate in the heat of the success of Jaws and Star Wars; it was also strangled by the hubris behind productions-run-amok like Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (which at least benefits from being a near-masterpiece) and Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. The now-aged New Hollywood filmmakers love to lament the corporate takeover of the movie business, but it was their own inability to check their appetites for lavish productions, coupled with the ivory tower perspective that came with ever-increasing wealth and power, that made their films more and more irrelevant and, therefore, fiscally untenable. They began as young bucks griping that money had too much sway over art and, despite the countercultural messages of their early films, they never found a way to change the financial calculus that rules Hollywood. Frankly, they never really tried. Once they had the means to make the movies they wanted to make, the status quo became much less offensive to them and, ironically, the films they wanted to make became much less compelling. If multi-nationals stole into the driver's seat of the American film industry, it's only because the New Hollywood generation handed them the keys. In the words of Captain America, they blew it.
Dennis Hopper's direction of Easy Rider is mostly mediocre, but the film comes alive in the editing (with the exception of the annoying stutter-step transitions between scenes). The acid trip sequence near the film's climax is one of its most compelling—despite its self-conscious attempt at profundity—and its magic is really in the editing: superimposition, odd juxtapositions, and a soundtrack of voices and music that is vaguely symbolic and borders on Musique Concrète. Such art film extravagances have been executed better elsewhere, but there's something refreshing about them in the context of a biker film. And, unlike the similar acid trip sequences in Roger Corman's The Trip, Hopper's scene doesn't derail Easy Rider's crisp pace. That pace is driven by the film's famed musical soundtrack, which includes tunes from Steppenwolf, The Band, Procul Harum, and others. The oft-repeated legend is that the songs in Easy Rider were only intended as a temporary track to which the film could be edited. Hopper and Fonda wanted Crosby, Stills, and Nash to compose an original score, but when the trio screened the film, they declared the existing music perfect and walked away from the project. Crosby, Stills, and Nash were right. All of Easy Rider's songs are so evocative of the era, they've become an indelible part of the experience of watching the film. They, far more than the dialogue track, benefit from this DVD's excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround tracks.
Easy Rider's acting is hit-or-miss, but laced with ironies. Hopper's Billy is far more compelling than Fonda's Wyatt if only because Billy's weaker, less cool, more human. Wyatt is hampered by the flat affect of the stone cold anti-hero. In the European tradition, Hopper (wearing the director's hat) trades professional acting chops for authenticity and the film packs a creepy wallop in the scene, for example, in which Wyatt, Billy, and George Hanson are menaced by rednecks in a diner in some hodunk town. The hicks are real and both their looks and improvised dialogue are far removed from what Hollywood could have manufactured at the time. Luke Askew and Jack Nicholson prove invaluable to the film, injecting humor into what would otherwise be a dour affair. Perhaps the greatest irony of Easy Rider is that no one benefited more from its success than Nicholson, whose pitch-perfect turn as whiskey-swilling ACLU lawyer George Hanson launched an acting career he'd been on the verge of giving up on. Fonda and Hopper play archetypes, really, and neither was able to parlay the film's popularity into bigger roles (Hopper's directorial career was torpedoed by his emotional volatility and substance-abuse problems). George Hanson, however, was the brainchild of Terry Southern, and closely based on a college friend. As a result, he's the most textured, realistic, and likable character in the film, despite the fact he's a square, the sort of doofus who wears a football helmet while riding on the back of Billy's bike. He's also the film's Jiminy Cricket, its moral authority, giving voice to the philosophical underpinnings that drive our heroes' journey across the country. Nicholson is so magnetic in the role, he dominates our attention in every scene he's in. Wyatt and Billy practically fade into the background.
In addition to the excellent soundtrack restoration mentioned earlier, Columbia TriStar's 35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Easy Rider sports a beautiful transfer that presents the picture in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen displays. The image is gritty and grainy in spots, but is clean, free of artifacts, and reproduces colors accurately. Much of the Mardi Gras footage was shot on 16mm stock in available light as a test (Schneider and Rafelson wanted to see if Hopper could handle a director's responsibilities), and is consequently muddy and riddled with coarse grain. It's as bad as things look on the DVD (unavoidably), but still has its own low-budget charm.
Those experiencing Easy Rider for the first time on DVD will be pleased with what they see and hear. Be warned, though, if you already own the 1999 Special Edition release: This Deluxe Edition has the same transfer, audio options, and on-board supplements. New to this release are an eight-song soundtrack CD, and Lee Hill's Easy Rider, a glossy 80-page book from the BFI Modern Classics series, detailing the film's production history.
On the disc itself, Hopper provides a decent commentary track, hampered only by the single-person perspective. The track would have benefited enormously from the presence of Fonda, Karen Black, Luke Askew, Toni Basil, Nicholson—heck, just about anybody else involved in making the film. Easy Rider's production was so weird and troubled, there's a Rashomon-like swirl of hazy, contradictory memories whenever a group of the cast and crew relay stories about it. That muddle of recollections comes through slightly better in Charles Kiselyak's (A Constant Forge) 64-minute documentary, Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage. The piece offers Hopper, Fonda, Black, Askew, and other cast and crew to discuss the making of the film and its impact on the movie business over the next decade. It's content is mostly fluff compared to Hill's book, but it still makes for an entertaining hour of viewing.
If you don't own Easy Rider, this 35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition is worth the investment. If you already own the previous Special Edition release, the addition of Hill's book and a soundtrack CD that's little more than a sampler don't warrant an upgrade. But, hey, I have faith we'll all be blown away by the abundance of supplements in the inevitable 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Special Edition sure to hit shelves in 2009, proving once and for all that Fonda and Hopper—like Wyatt and Billy—are nothing if not capitalists.
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• Commentary by Dennis Hopper
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