Easy Rider

Director: Dennis Hopper
Screenplay: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern
Stars: Peter Fonda (Wyatt), Dennis Hopper (Billy), Jack Nicholson (George Hanson), Luke Askew (Stranger on Highway), Toni Basil (Mary), Karen Black (Karen), Antonio Mendoza (Jesus), Phil Spector (Connection), Warren Finnerty (Rancher), Luana Anders (Lisa), Sabrina Scharf (Sarah), Sandy Wyeth (Joanne), Robert Walker (Jack)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1969
Country: U.S.
Easy Rider Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Easy RiderIt wasn’t the only one, but more so than any another other film of its era, Easy Rider changed everything. Arriving in theaters in the summer of 1969--the same three-month period that gave us the first man on the moon, the Stonewall riots, Woodstock, and the Manson murders--it was not the first biker movie (B-movie producer Roger Corman had been making scores of such picture since the mid-1960s). It was not the first movie about the hippie generation, either (Corman had already been there, as well). And it was certainly not the first movie to explore the drug culture (Corman had … well, you know). However, unlike those earlier films, which exploited the sensational nature of their subject matter and did little else, Easy Rider borrowed its attitude and aesthetics from the various European new waves and sought to be about something.

Easy Rider’s ultimate success at the box office demonstrated in a way that other films of its sort hadn’t that there was not just a desire among youth audiences to see films that reflected their worldview and their experiences, but a craving, which is why they went back to see it again and again in ritualistic fashion. It wasn’t just a film, but an event, and going to see it said something about you (The Graduate screenwriter Buck Henry described it as “the automatic handwriting of the counterculture”). Although it was produced independently by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider’s Raybert Productions for less than a half a million dollars, it made nearly $20 million at the domestic box office, proving once and for all that Hollywood didn’t necessarily have to spend millions to make millions. It also showed that, unlike Bonnie and Clyde (1967), they didn’t have to dress the counterculture up in historic metaphor. Peter Fonda, Hollywood icon Henry Fonda’s rebellious son who starred in the film as well as produced it and co-wrote the script with Hopper and Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove), allegedly joked that, once the executives at Columbia Pictures, one of the most conservative of the old school studios, realized how much money the film would make, they stopped shaking their heads in incomprehension and started nodding in incomprehension.

While it was incomprehensible to some, Easy Rider nevertheless became a touchstone of the counterculture, a film that both defined and demonstrated in so many ways the seismic shifts that were taking place all around not just America, but the world. As a film, it rebelled against many of Hollywood’s conventions with its loose, episodic narrative and ambiguous characters, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs’ natural lighting and lens flares, and the jarring jump cuts and temporal discontinuity. The soundtrack, shot through with the driving guitar chords of Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, and The Byrds, is now the stuff of classic rock radio, but at the time was ambitious and, to some, assaultive (it was only two years earlier that Mike Nichols had demonstrated the possibility of melding cinema and pop songs in The Graduate, and that was with the much more restrained folk tunes of Simon and Garfunkel). First-time director Dennis Hopper, who had started his career as a supporting actor in film and television in the 1950s, was a risky choice to helm the film, especially since he was known as being hot-headed, drug-addled, and paranoid, something he demonstrated constantly throughout production (to the point that some of his crew recorded his ranting as proof of the difficult working conditions). Perhaps as a result, his control behind the camera is uneven at best: Some scenes, such those in New Orleans and a subsequent LSD trip in a cemetery, are simply terrible, while other, like the shocking climax that seems to come out of nowhere, yet is absolutely crucial, are masterful.

The film’s plot is deliberately simple: Two young outsiders named Wyatt and Billy (Fonda and Hopper) score a major drug deal south of the border and then ride their motorcycles across the southwest United States en route to Mardis Gras in New Orleans. Like the European films of the 1960s that it was so clearly trying to emulate, Easy Rider is less about what happens than it is about its tone, its mood, and its attitude. It was “outsider cinema,” the first in a new wave of American films that dared to focus on characters from the fringes of society who wanted their own version of the American dream. In conventional terms, Wyatt and Billy are hippies, young men who have rejected their parents’ culture and embraced a different set of goals and values. Yet, the film positions them as something more important: symbols of a new dawn that may never break. The manner in which they are dressed--Billy in his buckskin fringe and Wyatt, also known as “Captain America,” in black leather with the stars and stripes emblazoned on the back--both tears down and holds up conventional American wisdom and the value system on which the country was founded.

The film’s key moment is when a disaffected, alcoholic ACLU named George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) who they picked up in Texas and took along for the ride, tells Wyatt and Billy that society fears them because they represent “freedom,” that wonderful, terrible defining cornerstone of American life that is so often held aloft as the ultimate virtue and just as often derided by proxy when it leads to something the majority doesn’t like. Of course, what has made Easy Rider last as a countercultural touchstone is its willingness to concede that sometimes those out in front of a revolution aren’t always sure what they’re actually fighting for. Defining yourself against something is easy; defining yourself for something is an entirely different matter, which is why Wyatt and Billy disagree in the film’s final moment about how far they’ve come. “We’ve made it,” Billy boldly and happily complains. “We blew it,” Wyatt quietly murmurs. The space between those two statements is the essence of any true revolution.

Easy Rider Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
America Lost and Found: The BBS Story Criterion Collection Blu-Ray SetEasy Rider is availably exclusively via The Criterion Collection’s six-disc box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, which also includes Head (1968), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Drive, He Said (1970), A Safe Place (1971), The Last Picture Show (1971), and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972).
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD 5.1 surround
  • English PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by actor-director-writer Dennis Hopper
  • Audio commentary by Hopper, actor-writer Peter Fonda, and production manager Paul Lewis
  • Born to Be Wild (1995) retrospective documentary
  • Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage (1999) retrospective documentary
  • Television excerpts showing Hopper and Fonda at the Cannes Film Festival
  • New video interview with BBS cofounder Steve Blauner
  • Theatrical trailers
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$124.95 (box set)
    Release DateNovember 16, 2010

    The 4K high-definition transfer on Criterion’s Blu-Ray appears to be different from the transfer on Sony’s Blu-Ray from 2009, although only slightly. Supervised by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs and taken from both the original camera negative and the black-and-white separate masters, the transfer looks fantastic, giving us what appears to be an accurate representation of the film’s look. For the most part, it is smooth and well detailed, albeit with a strong presence of grain that maintains the image’s film-like appearance. You can see a distinct change in the quality of the image during the New Orleans sequence, which was clearly shot on 16mm and then blown up, thus exaggerating the grain presence and reducing detail and clarity. In terms of comparison with the previous Blu-Ray, colors seem slightly more accurate on this disc, especially with skin tones, which appear a little less reddish. Given the importance of the soundtrack, the Criterion disc offers two options, a lossless DTS-HD monaural track that matches the original theatrical experience and a newly remixed DTS-HD 5.1 surround track. Both soundtracks were mastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic 3-track masters and multitrack music masters under the supervision of Dennis Hopper. The 5.1-surround track does a great job of opening up the music and the ambient sound, creating the kind of immersive experience that encourages you to turn up the volume.
    Criterion’s disc draws about half of its supplements from the previously available Sony Blu-Ray and then adds several new extras. From the Sony disc we have an excellent solo commentary from actor-director-writer Dennis Hopper, which is all the more poignant and meaningful given his recent passing, and Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage, a first-rate retrospective documentary made in 1999 that features interviews with all of the major participants, including Hopper and Peter Fonda. Criterion adds a new commentary recorded in 2009 with Hopper, Fonda, and production manager Paul Lewis, as well as Born to Be Wild, a half-hour retrospective documentary produced in 1995 by the BBC to go with the channel’s airing of the film. Also new this time around are two minutes of excerpts from French television showing Hopper and Fonda at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, a new 20-minute video interview with BBS cofounder Steve Blauner, and two theatrical trailers.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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