Criterion Review: Easy Rider
By John Corrado
There are many things about Easy Rider, which received a new Criterion Collection release on Blu-ray last week, that remain iconic. The sweeping images of motorcycles riding along wide open landscapes, a soundtrack featuring some of the best rock songs of the era, and Jack Nicholson’s first of many unforgettable Oscar-nominated roles.
But it’s the brilliant observations on a changing point in American history, channelled through a freewheeling lifestyle born out of dissatisfaction with the status quo that is on the verge of extinction, that make Easy Rider one of the defining films of the 1960s.
Released in 1969, Easy Rider is a time capsule of post-war America, following young hippies Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) as they take a motorcycle trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, searching for some semblance of freedom. Along the way, they smoke grass and rail against the mainstream, while facing bigotry from many of the small town communities who fear their long hair and non-conformist ideals. They encounter a multitude of unique characters, and a brief stint in jail puts them in contact with George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a radical young lawyer who starts to tag along on their journey.
Directed by Dennis Hopper, and becoming a massive hit based on the relatively low budget, Easy Rider provides a compelling snapshot of the 1960s countercultural movement, and became a major cultural touchstone in its own right. The quick cuts within scenes, an editing style that is heavily influenced by French New Wave, were ahead of their time for American cinema, signifying the early stages of the independent filmmaking movement. Montages of their motorcycles travelling across seemingly endless roadways with the epic vistas of skies and land in the background, images that play in perfect unison with the songs, represent a sort of music video sensibility that still gets replicated.
Producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, along with their childhood friend Stephen Blauner, went on to found BBS Productions, which also brought us 1970s staples Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show. Definitive of its time, Easy Rider is a film that remains fascinating for the ways it distills the changing face of America in the 1960s into a freewheeling road trip narrative, through characters who are not only perched at the end of a decade, but also facing the death of an entire era. The film brilliantly emulates the culture clash between establishment politics and the countercultural movement in a way that continues to resonate, right down to the abrupt nature of that still shocking final scene.
Bonus features includes two commentary tracks, the documentaries Born to Be Wild (1995) and Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage (1999), footage of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda at Cannes, and a new video interview with Steve Blauner. The package also has an excellent essay by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz.
Easy Rider is 96 minutes and unrated.