Judge Gordon Sullivan went looking for America. He found it under "A" in the atlas.
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: 35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (published January 10th, 2005) are also available.
A man went looking for America. And couldn't find it anywhere…
Generally, revolutions produce positive results. I for one appreciate being American, and I'm glad our ancestors revolted against the British. However, just because the revolution has positive effects doesn't make the battles any less ugly. As much as I love living in America, I have no desire to go back to the battle of Bunker Hill. Similarly, while I love the revolution that occurred in movie making in the late 1960s and early '70s, I don't always want to watch the films that produced it. Easy Rider is a prime example. I know I owe it a huge debt for rocking the Hollywood studio boat and giving rise to such figures as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, but I have trouble appreciating it as a film rather than a cultural and historical marker. Although that may be the generation gap speaking, fans of the film are sure to be pleased with the Easy Rider (Blu-ray), which ports most of the great thirty-fifth anniversary extras while upping the ante in the audio and video departments.
Produced outside the studio system in 1969, Easy Rider follows Wyatt (Peter Fonda, 3:10 to Yuma) and Billy (Dennis Hopper, who also directs) as they road trip across America with a load of drugs, looking for freedom and financial stability. Along the way they run into attorney George Hanson (Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets). Together the three travel the American landscape, taking stock of the state of the union during the tumultuous end of the decade.
Despite any enjoyment (or lack thereof) in watching Easy Rider, there is no denying the fact that it was the perfect film for the perfect time. The Hollywood studio system had seemingly reached its peak, and the films coming out of it weren't appealing to the new crop of postwar baby boomers who were becoming a dominant force in the consumer world. American films outside the Hollywood system had never achieved the kind of critical and commercial success that Easy Rider earned, paving the way for more restless experiments in cinema and youth (counter)culture. The film also brought together the recent fascination with motorcycle culture (although not the Hell's Angels variety which had received so much attention), the increasing drug use among teens, and the hippy/redneck divide that in some ways is still perpetuated in our country. The film also presented the increasingly disillusioned eye with which many viewed America as the war in Vietnam heated up.
But for all that, the film is not the most compelling feature from a narrative perspective. Billy and Wyatt get their drugs, drive east, meet people, make vague and drug-induced pronouncements, and clash with small-town citizens, all without much actually happening. Obviously the influence of drugs (on both filmmakers and viewers) is to blame for much of the film's lassitude, and I have no doubt that the bizarre verbal banter would be much more profound if I were to accompany it with a few joints. Since I didn't, the film's dialogue and "story" simply aren't that compelling (aside from an amazing performance by Jack Nicholson). Another reason for the film's rather slow trudge toward the finale is an obvious contempt for traditional storytelling. With no love interest, and the traditional quest narrative perverted by the object of selling drugs, the film flies in the face of traditional Hollywood storytelling. That's a laudable goal, but other filmmakers have revolted from Hollywood's conventions with much more satisfying results.
Although I don't enjoy Easy Rider as much as some viewers, I readily acknowledge its influence, and this new Blu-ray will ensure the film's survival well into the twenty-first century. Shot on a small budget, Easy Rider has a spontaneous natural feel, and the video transfer preserves the appropriately grainy texture of the film. Colors seem particularly strong and detail is surprisingly high for a film forty years old. The film's soundtrack fares equally well, with the (now classic) rock tracks that make up the soundtrack given prominent positions in the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix.
Extras are very similar to those released on the thirty-fifth anniversary DVD release. Dennis Hopper's solo audio commentary is an interesting listen, although slightly hampered by decades worth of distance and the effects that drugs no doubt had on his memories of the production. The documentary "Shaking the Cage" expands the list of commentators to include other cast members, including Peter Fonda. A trivia track is exclusive to this Blu-ray release that comes off as a bit unnecessary after the documentary and commentary.
Missing from the 35th Anniversary edition are the eight-song soundtrack, and the BFI Modern Classics book on the film. As a paltry replacement, this disc is housed in a book-like case with an attached booklet with production and cast info. It's not a bad little book, but pales in comparison to the rich BFI book.
This release isn't the blowout 40th Anniversary release my fellow judge predicted in his review of the previous DVD edition, but his historic film gets a worthy hi-def upgrade four decades out. Those new to the film will want to give it at least a rental, if only for the film's value as history. Fans who already own the previous edition(s) will likely be torn: there's nothing new on the supplement list (aside from the slim booklet and trivia track), but the presentation is significantly upgraded. Your mileage, like that of Billy and Wyatt, may vary.
It's amazing that the prime example of the counterculture in film has become a cultural icon. For that reason alone, Easy Rider is not guilty.
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