As is often the case with pop touchstones, the experience of watching Easy Rider from start to finish is very different from receiving the movie—as so many have—in pieces. In clip-packages meant to encapsulate what “the ’60s” were all about, Easy Rider is a distilled expression of counterculture cool, with a long-haired Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper roaring through middle America on souped-up choppers, while Steppenwolf blares on the soundtrack. According to the legend, the film represents a victory for the hippies over the establishment squares still controlling the media in 1969. Its massive box office success sent studios scrambling to find any pot-smoking freak who could tap into the lucrative youth market—which quickly led to American cinema having its own belated “New Wave” in the early ’70s, over a decade after the French broke that ground. Easy Rider also boosted charismatic bit-player Jack Nicholson, who steals the picture during his roughly 20 minutes of screen time and then capitalized on his elevated profile to become one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
The Criterion Collection has released Easy Rider on DVD and Blu-ray before, as part of the essential America Lost And Found: The BBS Story box set. But there, the film was part of a larger narrative, sowing seeds for a movement that would blossom more fully in the unparalleled BBS masterpieces Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show. The new stand-alone Criterion DVD and Blu-ray editions of Easy Rider don’t add any bonus features that weren’t already present in the box. It includes a 1995 Hopper/Fonda commentary track (with production designer Paul Lewis joining in), and a separate 2009 Hopper commentary, plus two fairly similar behind-the-scenes documentaries and a couple of stray interviews. But just the act of separating Easy Rider from the pack allows for a little more thoughtful consideration of the piece itself: as cinema, and not just as a landmark.
In retrospect, it’s clearer that Hopper—as director, co-writer, and star—was grappling with what an American art film should be. Though it was released one month before the seminal fiction/documentary hybrid Medium Cool, Easy Rider frequently aspires to cinema verité, by dropping the characters into the middle of real-world situations, then catching what happens on the fly. The movie has Hopper and Fonda playing Billy and Wyatt, two fuzzy dreamers who make a fortune on a cocaine deal and then ride their bikes from Los Angeles to New Orleans, enjoying the open road on their way to the spectacle of Mardi Gras. Hopper and cinematographer László Kovács made it their mission to capture the natural beauty of the United States’ wide landscapes, alongside the ugly narrow-mindedness of some of its citizens. Scripted scenes alternate with long road-trip montages and real moments of culture clash.
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Yet Easy Rider’s also a lot more critical of its own audience that its reputation suggests. In one of the film’s most famous lines, on the morning after an emotional New Orleans acid trip, Wyatt mutters, “We blew it.” That kind of somber reflection suffuses the entire film, especially in a sequence where the bikers stop off at a desert commune that’s barely surviving. The movie honors the idea of getting back to the land, but it also heaves an exasperated sigh at the younger generation for not really knowing where or how to farm. Hopper’s Billy embodies a lot of the contradictions of the hippie ideal. He enjoys the part of being a longhair that allows him to get high with strangers and have sex with random ladies, but he’s also cynical, paranoid, and not especially generous. Hopper delivers a rich characterization, matched by Fonda’s more sensitive, searching Wyatt.
In honestly acknowledging a generation’s flaws, Easy Rider can at times be pretty funny. The length and earnestness of the climactic acid trip—followed nearly immediately by an infamously bleak ending—sends audiences out the door thinking they’ve seen something heavy, or even pretentious. But there’s a lot of humor along the way, including at that commune, where a woman takes two tries to figure out Wyatt’s Zodiac sign and then purrs, “I guessed right.” Nicholson in particular is a comedy bonanza as the sympathetic alcoholic lawyer George Hanson, who avoids marijuana at first because, “It leads to harder stuff.” In the sharpest moment in Easy Rider, Nicholson’s Hanson delivers a long stoned rap about Venusians, and when he’s done, after a perfectly timed beat, Wyatt asks, “How’s your joint, George?”
If there’s one image that best represents Easy Rider, it’s not the oft-duplicated shot of two antiheroes zooming down the road and across a bridge. (There are a lot of bridges in this movie.) Easy Rider’s real meaning is conveyed in a brief moment when Billy, Wyatt, and George start their day by urinating in unison along the side of the road. The pissing represents freedom, and not just for the characters. The filmmakers were working to put something on the screen that was true to reality—that had never been shown before by Hollywood.
It’s important to remember that Hopper, Fonda, Nicholson, and executive producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider weren’t novices. The studios may have considered them outsiders, but they were still allowed beyond the gate, because they’d been in the business for a while, and they knew how to make money. Easy Rider wouldn’t have been distributed as widely as it was, and wouldn’t have a soundtrack featuring The Band and The Byrds (with behind-the-scenes assistance from Bob Dylan) if Hopper and company weren’t connected, and savvy. Many of the movies made in the wake of Easy Rider were more accomplished, more sophisticated, and more aesthetically mature. But Easy Rider itself still feels vital, because it was made by people who’d spent years learning what couldn’t be done, before deciding to do it anyway.