Let’s Talk About…’Easy Rider’ (1969)

Film #54 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

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I’ve watched Easy Rider a few times now.  And, frankly, I still don’t know what to make of it.  I really don’t think I like it.  But, having said that, it’s an iconic American film and is a “must watch” for any fan of movies.  Coming out in 1969, it was an exclamation point at the end of the sixties.  The summer of love was long gone and the Kent State shooting was just a few months away.

The film itself, gritty in subject matter and having the earthy quality of many of the “New Hollywood” films whose era was just beginning, is about as far as you can get from the vibrant psychedelia represented by The Beatles just a few short years before.  There’s no optimism here.  Sure, there’s plenty of pot and acid, but the film is about a road trip that’s paid for by a shady coke deal at the start of the film.  The bad graveyard acid trip that features in the third act is the furthest thing one can imagine from a colorful Peter Max painting.

The film follows Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) on a trip from California to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  It opens with a coke deal that supplies the two with all the money they need for the trip.  Wyatt and Billy meet various characters on their way to New Orleans.  They pick up a hitchhiker and spend some time in a hippie commune.  Further down the road, they land in a small town jail where they pick up George (Jack Nicholson), an ACLU lawyer who spent the night in the drunk tank. From there, the three pass through another small southern town and find themselves to be the objects of ridicule and contempt.  After a tragic run-in that night with some violent locals, Wyatt and Billy flee to New Orleans the next morning.  There, they find a brothel that George had mentioned to them and hook up with two prostitutes.  The four hit the streets to take in the Mardi Gras scene and drop some acid that Wyatt had been saving.  Their trip culminates in a grave yard freak out.  The film ends with the two bikers taking to the highway and once again coming face to face with hateful rednecks.

Peter Fonda has said that the idea for this film started out as a modern, countercultural take on the western.  The two main character’s names, Wyatt and Billy, are references to Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid.  In some important ways, this is a western. Wyatt and Billy are outsiders, unable to exist within traditional society.  They spend their nights under the stars, gazing into a campfire.  They’re most at home when they’re wandering.  The protagonists here are the embodiment of idealized American freedom, unbound by any cultural or moral restraints.

It’s freedom, however, without a point.  Or rather, freedom IS the point.  It seems to be a nihilistic freedom that reflects the disillusionment of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  To appropriate a line from another movie, the war is over and the bums lost.  At every turn, Wyatt and Billy are persecuted by mainstream, traditional America or disillusioned by the failures of the counterculture. The hippie commune is revealed to be a collection of dreamers and imbeciles trying to sow seeds on barren ground, both literally and figuratively.  The towns are home to rednecks who, as explained by George, are scared of the concept of true freedom and as a result hate Wyatt and Billy who happen to be the embodiment of that freedom.  In the end, defeated and demoralized, Wyatt utters the words “we blew it.”

Easy Rider was directed by Dennis Hopper and produced by Peter Fonda.  Production was a mess by all accounts, with fights and drugged up debauchery being a regular occurrence.

Easy Rider was reportedly shot for less than $400,000.  It is definitely an independent film. Shots vary in quality.  There wasn’t much of a script and many of the lines were ad-libbed.  Jack Nicholson turns in a better performance than even the two leads.  The townsfolk were actual locals found on location and much of the animus they displayed toward the characters was said by Hopper to be real.  Finally, the film itself isn’t so much a story but a series of events.  It’s thin on plot and long on anti-establishment moralizing. In today’s climate, it is somewhat odd to see two straight white males being portrayed, ultimately, as victims of rural prejudice.

For me, the best part of the film is the soundtrack.  More money was spent on music licensing than the actual production of the film.  Heavy hitters of classic rock like Jimi Hendrix, the Byrds, The Band, and Steppenwolf are all featured prominently.

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were originally supposed to write and perform the soundtrack, but according to Frank Mastropolo (who wrote the story of the soundtrack) Dennis Hopper threw them off the project.  In a quote too good not to include in this article, he apparently told them that they were great musicians, but “anybody who rides in a limo can’t comprehend my movie, so I’m gonna have to say no to this, and if you guys try to get in the studio again, I may have to cause you some bodily harm.”

Easy Rider is an experience more than a traditional film.  I suppose that’s the best mindset to have when you view it. Consider it a museum exhibition that depicts the transition between one era and another.  Between the heady, world-changing optimism of the idealized sixties and the hungover malaise that arrived with the seventies.

“I may have to cause you some bodily harm.” Yeah. The sixties as depicted here are long way from the summer of love.