Remember when Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" was not yet a cliché but a blast from the counter-culture? Those were the days. To revisit Easy Rider—a countercultural film that, in 1969, seized the culture—is to rediscover its freshness and deceptive simplicity. It's not only a film very much of its time; it's a film that is its time, a time capsule for rising youth culture attitudes about the perilous search for freedom in America. For the hog-riding heroes of Easy Rider, freedom means complete lifestyle choice: financial independence, life off the grid, and sexual liberty. Of course, as Kris Krstofferson pointed out (also in 1969), freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
Lest we forget, Easy Rider was directed by Dennis Hopper, better known for his wacked-out screen personas. Though he famously got off to a bumpy start with a chaotic Mardi Gras test sequence shot on 16mm, Hopper regrouped and hired the then-unknown Hungarian-American cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (Kovacs would go on to shoot Five Easy Pieces, Shampoo, What's Up, Doc?, New York, New York and Ghostbusters, among others). Peter Fonda plays Wyatt, a.k.a. "Captain America" and Hopper plays Billy: like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, these men are outlaws. The film opens with two coke deals, the second finding Wyatt and Billy delivering to Phil Spector (who isn't necessarily playing himself but might as well be). With their new nest egg stashed in the gas tank of Captain America's bike, the two men set out on a road trip to New Orleans. Though Captain America is essentially draped in the American flag—which decorates his helmet and his gas tank—he is met with hippie-hatred in the deep South and a warm welcome by the denizens of a commune. The farmers there seed a bone-dry field, hope springing eternal about their "place to make a stand."
One hippie chick warns Wyatt, "Your time's running out," the first of many bad omens about a possible end of the road for the freedom-seekers. But the fun keeps on rolling: Captain America and Billy impulsively join a Main St. parade, an iconic piece of Americana. Jailed for unathorized parading, the two meet George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic lawyer who does work for the ACLU. Hanson pulls a few strings and accepts an invitation to join his new friends for Mardi Gras. Though Fonda's serene biker and Hopper's man-child are indelible, Nicholson is downright sensational with his free-associative dialogue and physical quirks. Hanson is also a perfect symbol for the American who buys in to the culture even as he wishes he didn't. Clad in his own Americana (the football helmet and college sweater of his youth), the lawyer enjoys the open road, tries marijuana for the first time, and muses to his new buddies, "This used to be a hell of a good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it." Karen Black also shows up as one of the prostitutes who accompany the men on a bad LSD trip.
As the son of a movie star who tended to be typecast as moral paragons, Peter Fonda ends up being a walking next-generational symbol. Fonda and Hopper get co-screenwriter credit with Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), who gave some body to the road-movie concepts. The unsung hero of the film is Henry Jaglom, who edited the film from its over-three-and-a-half-hour rough cut form down to a streamlined 96 minutes; between Hopper and Jaglom, the film winds up with inventive editing that suggests the influence of the French New Wave. Influential use of found music (including The Band and Jimi Hendrix) also contributes enormously to the film's character and mood. Remembered as the first independent film ever to be distributed by a major American studio (Columbia), Easy Rider remains a powerful tone poem about America at a cultural crossroads. However you want to take it, Captain America's simple declaration "We blew it" says it all.
Sony transfers Easy Rider to Blu-ray with awesome results in a 40th Anniversary edition. The film-like image does an excellent job of presenting the film in an authentic way and at its best advantage: the source appears completely clean, and no unnatural grain reduction has been applied. Detail is revelatory and color and contrast are beautifully accurate. In short, Easy Rider hasn't looked this good since its debut. Furthering its commitment to serve the film, Sony presents both the original mono soundtrack in Dolby Digital and a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that boosts the fidelity of the music and effects in giving the film the lossless audio treatment.
Brought to you by BD-Live is the new movieIQ feature, which serves up cast, crew, music and production trivia about the film.
The Dennis Hopper audio commentary found on previous editions makes a return appearance here, and it's well worth a listen as Hopper is not only the driving force behind the project, but also a character in his own right.
Best of set is the fantastic documentary Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage (1:04:51, SD), which constitutes an oral history of the film. Hopper, Peter Fonda, associate producer Bill Hayward, Seymour Cassel, Karen Black, production manager Paul Lewis, Luke Askew, and director of photography Laszlo Kovacs comment extensively; it's a shame Jack Nicholson couldn't be drawn into the mix.
Sony gives Easy Rider one more show of support with book-style packaging that includes 36 pages of full-color photos, bios, and essays on the film and its music.
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