Easy Rider is the quintessential “sixties movie.” Directed by Dennis Hopper (his first) and a smash hit at the time all over the world and won the First Film award at Cannes, It’s about two drifters, played by Hopper and Peter Fonda, as they travel from the west to the south selling speed and meeting various people along the way.
Hopper was often considered a hippie, but he was actually more of a beatnik or proto-punk. The film’s key theme is the death of the American dream, as made visual in its explosive ending. Hopper developed the script with Fonda and cult beatnik writer Terry Southern.
The film emerged from the series of movies that Hopper and Fonda had done for Roger Corman, such as The Trip and The Wild Angels. With Easy Rider, Hopper, his cast and crew were influenced by the French New Wave and decided to pool their resources to make a “proper” film—in turn, proving that counterculture-oriented films could be more than just drive-in fare.
The film’s commercial success came as a surprise to the director, and paved the way for other projects to get a go-ahead including his disasterous “art film” The Last Movie which is still unreleased on DVD or Blu-Ray. The editing in Easy Rider is much more experimental than typical films from the late 60s, giving permission for other directors to go out on a limb with their work. At the time, the fact that they were obviously smoking weed on-screen was quite shocking, and the acid-trip was certainly technically avant-garde for a film that became an actual blockbuster hit.
Easy Rider is also the film that made Jack Nicholson (who essentially stole the movie) into a bona fide star. Nicholson was a reluctant actor who had made quite a few previous projects with Corman and Monty Helman. After Easy Rider, however, he was in high demand, with classics like Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail and other 1970s classics the result. His portrayal of alcoholic lawyer George Hanson drives the film forward, as the token “straight” whose eyes are opened. There are also notable cameos from Karen Black, Toni Basil and Phil Spector (who plays the cocaine connection).
Although the film is certainly also a “road movie,” the filmmakers conceived of it as a Western. With two lead characters called Wyatt and Billy riding motorcycles rather than horses across an elemental American landscape where they face hostility from the natives, capped off with an iconic shootout, it certainly checks all the genre boxes.
It’s also a film in which rock music takes a central role—Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” and “The Pusher” have an indelible association with the film’s imagery and message. There had been very little use of hard rock in film outside of the AIT hippie movies, e.g, Psych-Out and Riot on the Sunset Strip, and this is one of the films that boosted the use of contemporary rock as a soundtrack device. The soundtrack evolved from the editor’s use of his personal record collection during the editing process, resulting in a very different kind of music-driven cut than was typical of the time.
This Criterion edition is packed with a massive tranche of extra features: a commentary by Hopper, another by production manager Paul Lewis with Hopper and Fonda, an excellent hour-long making-documentary and an additional making-of feature, plus additional footage from Cannes. There’s also an interview with the late Steve Blauner, co-founder of BBS Productions, which released some of the best films of 1970s Hollywood. Easy Rider was one of the first (even though BBS’s involvement was mainly with finance). It’s a package that really adds to understanding the film and its context, and seeing the various levels it works on.