Review by: Robert Trate
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Luke Askew, Phil Spector
Director: Dennis Hopper
Original Year of Release: 1969
Run Time: 95 minutes
Many people discovered Easy Rider in college. Members of the Baby Boomer generation, that is. It was a counter culture movie to all the Beach Blanket Bingo films of the day. I too discovered the film in college. However it was because it was the type of film that my parents, Baby Boomers, would have never recommend for me. They weren’t hippies and in many respects they would have been considered squares. So when when the film was screened in a communications class (Comm 150), I was really surprised how much I liked it. The film’s heroes, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), sell drugs to fund their road trip across America to get to Mardi Gras. They had to get from Los Angeles to New Orleans in a week, on motorcycles. What they witness reveals how America was in late 1960’s. It is a mirror that we can look back on and see just how diverse the country was at that time.
The film is now considered a classic. Then, it was a smash hit, because, quite frankly, there wasn’t another film like it. People identified with it for numerous reasons, some of which the creators of the film (Hopper and Fonda) found shocking. Others praised it for its message. I had not seen the film in years and wondered if my appreciation diminished (much like The Graduate, see review).
As per the usual, with all Criterion Collection releases, there are special features which heighten the film experience. Knowing full well the story of Easy Rider, I decided that the special feature “Easy Rider”: Shaking the Cage (1999) would be first on my viewing plate, before the film. It was an experience I highly recommend sampling if you haven’t seen the film in a while. Here Peter Fonda, who produced it, and Dennis Hopper, who directed the picture, regale us with the ins-and-outs of the legendary film. Everyone has to wonder how two actors, who danced between movies made for “the man” and lived in the counter culture movement managed to make a make a movie and get it on screen. The answers are given here by both of these two men as well as producers, co-stars, and cinematographer, László Kovács. The production started off with a free wheeling spirit, evident by the Mardi Gras footage. However, those early days allowed Hopper to see that they needed some organization or the film would never have come together. This is a documentary that peels the layers back and sadly reveals that Hopper and Fonda did not remain the closest of friends that their on screen counterparts appeared to be. In fact, much of the hostility off screen between several of the actors is reflected in the improved scenes that made it into the film. Luke Askew’s scenes were chief among them. I did not find it odd that Jack Nicholson was absent from this 1999 documentary. What was surprising is that many involved stated that Nicholson, during filming, said he didn’t want to act anymore, only produce. Watch all the way through the credits to learn what happened to the two legendary bikes in the film as well as what credit card Fonda put the whole picture on.
In watching the film again with a greater appreciation and new found knowledge of the production, I found it to be just as enticing as the first time. New layers were evident and I had a heightened awareness of just how special the film has become. Ironically enough, as Fonda points out in the documentary, this little film that was outside of the culture, is now endorsed by the United States government and is persevered in the National Archives. Never did he imagine that would happen.
The ending of the film, which I knew to be a bad experience for its characters after the loss of Nicholson’s George Hanson, always seemed like a mess to me. It’s a bad trip, literally, but what went on behind the scenes helped to soften that part of the picture as well illustrate its point. Again, Criterion Collection gives the purest of film aficionados what they want, a Blu-ray that is worthy of residing on the shelf.
• Restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by director of photography László Kovács, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
• Alternate 2.0 and 5.1 surround soundtracks, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray
• Two audio commentaries, one from 2009, featuring actor-director-writer Dennis Hopper, and the other from 1995, featuring Hopper, actor-writer Peter Fonda, and production manager Paul Lewis
• Born to Be Wild (1995) and “Easy Rider”: Shaking the Cage (1999), documentaries about the making and history of the film
• Television excerpts showing Hopper and Fonda at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969
• Interview from 2010 with BBS Productions cofounder Steve Blauner
• Theatrical trailers
• An essay by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz