When the American Film Institute came up with a list of the top one hundred films, ‘Easy Rider’ came in at number 88. While this may not seem impressive, after all, it is only 88 out of 100. Remembered that there were hundreds of thousands of films that did not make this list and the company ‘Easy Rider’ was in, just its inclusion in such a laudable list confirmed its position as one of the greatest films of all time. It is a film that spoke to a generation lost in the transition between the sixties and the seventies. This generation was trying to find itself, establish a unique identity by breaking away from the hidebound sensibilities of their parents. Like many of the great stories throughout time this movie has a simple plot. Two men set up a drug deal that yields a substantial amount of ill-gotten money.Their intention is to celebrate their successful transaction by heading down to New Orleans in time to attend Mardi Gras. The ensuing story has become an enduring part of the collective consciousness of our generation. The screenplay co-authored by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern (of the naughty book, Candy, fame). So ideally captures the angsts and exuberance of the generation that survived one of the most tumultuous time periods in history. Many films of this era were known for soundtracks including popular songs, but ‘Easy Rider’ became the soundtrack of a generation.
The two main characters are Wyatt (Peter Fonda) also know as Captain America because of his American flag affixed to the back of his leather jacket and red white and blue gas tank on his Harley. His best friend and journey companion is Billy, played by Dennis Hopper. Wyatt is the most introspective of the pair. He is always reflecting on something that is so deep he often doesn’t even share it with his friend or by extension, the audience. Wyatt, on the other hand, is more carefree, capable of living in the moment. Between the two, the period is represented perfectly, a generation that strives to enjoy life to the fullest yet concerned with the social issues and political influences that shape the world they are inheriting. There are those that care about the socio-political causes and those just having a good time. Added to this is the ancillary cast, the most well remember of which is George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a small town drunk and lawyer. The scene of them sitting around the campfire at night is one of the scenes many of us will remember forever.
Almost used, as another cast member is the soundtrack. That was one of the first films to integrate a rock soundtrack so seamlessly into the story. The songs may seem out of date to some of the younger members of the audience as if they stumbled upon a vintage playlist, but they do represent the time that led to their creation. Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ became an anthem of freedom and expression because of this film.Back in my college dorm room, we used to listen to these songs on a little portable record player (records, those 12" black vinyl discs we used to use before CDs). Now, thanks to Dolby 5.1 remix, the songs take on a new life in realistic, discrete surround sound. Even the younger viewers that never heard many of these songs before will be impressed with what the roots of modern music were and how it flows through the story.
The director, Dennis Hopper made his freshman effort in this movie. Although Mr. Hopper had made many movies as an actor by this time, he had never stepped around to the other side of the camera to sit in the director’s chair. There are some amateurish parts to the direction but rather than detract from the film they simply add to the almost ‘cinema vérité’ feel the provided by the film. In the commentary, Hopper stated he wanted to make the first American art film. He describes the European influences that helped him stylistically. He detailed how his motivation and execution of telling the story were largely=defined by the continental influences and how he could apply them to the disruptive effects of the generation gap and escalating mistrust of the government's authority. This provides an excellent companion for this hallmark film. There was one scene early on that is so subtle and yet so powerful. The bikers have a flat and ask a rancher to use his barn to fix it. He agrees, and you have a scene where two ranchers are shoeing a horse in the foreground while the two younger men are busy fixing a flat on cycle in the background. This movie abounds with contrasts like this. The movie achieved far more than just igniting an art film movement in the States; it became an iconic film of its decade and the youth of the country. 1969 was the time that the Vietnam War all but took over the media of the country dividing the population sharply along generational lines. One reason that this scene is a microcosm of hope is how it demonstrates an undeniable, timeless continuity binding generations.The rancher and biker both lovingly caring for their rides I a scene that some may describe as anachronistic. Mr. Hopper portrayed a hopeful message that the old order and new can get along together. The fundamental concerns of life are immutable, persistent throughout time and independent of government mandates; at a time when much of the music, movies, and literature are produced by the younger generational was practically all confrontational, Mr. Hooper created a beacon of hope. A frequently quoted mantra of the disaffected youth was "don’t trust anyone over thirty. "This film spoke to the counter-culture in a moderating fashion,
The soundtrack of the movie remains simply astounding. For those of us that remember watching this movie in the theater, the music filled the venue and created a synergistic t when combined with the groundbreaking visual artistry of one of the most eclectic cinematographers in the business, László Kovács. Joining Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in shaping the screenplay was Terry Southern, a writer who built a reputation for himself as one of the foremost satirists of his time. Some of his works have are branded as subversive or obscene. The best known of this category are most notably ‘Candy’ and ‘Barbarella.' The incredible acuity of his writings can be demonstrated in a movie that dared to satirize the threat of mutually assured destruction that frightened the world in ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’.
Finally, this movie has received the home entertainment release it so richly deserves through its induction into the Criterion Collection. The film has been meticulously restored frame by frame bringing to clarity normally only found in studio master prints. Typically Criterion strives to retain the original technical specifications of the filmmaker. The score represents such a crucial element of telling the story and a significant of the music of that decade, for many the soundtrack of our youth. Out of mutual respect for the filmmaker and the fans an alternate remixed Dolby 5.1 soundtrack has been included. Even after 47 years, this film remains a work of cinematic artistry. Some of the dialogue between Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson may be dated, but the chemistry and exuberance created by these talented men will remain timeless. There is no wonder that the movie was added to the Library of Congress National Registry in 1998.
Posted 04/21/2016 01/13/2017