Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Easy Rider (1969)
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Background

Easy Rider (1969) is the late 1960s "road film" tale of a search for freedom (or the illusion of freedom) in a conformist and corrupt America, in the midst of paranoia, bigotry and violence. Released in the year of the Woodstock concert, and made in a year of two tragic assassinations (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King), the Vietnam War buildup and Nixon's election, the tone of this 'alternative' film is remarkably downbeat and bleak, reflecting the collapse of the idealistic 60s. Easy Rider, one of the first films of its kind, was a ritualistic experience and viewed (often repeatedly) by youthful audiences in the late 1960s as a reflection of their realistic hopes of liberation and fears of the Establishment.

The iconographic, 'buddy' film, actually minimal in terms of its artistic merit and plot, is both memorialized as an image of the popular and historical culture of the time and a story of a contemporary but apocalyptic journey by two self-righteous, drug-fueled, anti-hero (or outlaw) bikers eastward through the American Southwest. Their trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans takes them through limitless, untouched landscapes (icons such as Monument Valley), various towns, a hippie commune, and a graveyard (with hookers), but also through areas where local residents are increasingly narrow-minded and hateful of their long-haired freedom and use of drugs. The film's title refers to their rootlessness and ride to make "easy" money; it is also slang for a pimp who makes his livelihood off the earnings of a prostitute. However, the film's original title was The Loners.

[The names of the two main characters, Wyatt and Billy, suggest the two memorable Western outlaws Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid - or 'Wild Bill' Hickcock. Rather than traveling westward on horses as the frontiersmen did, the two modern-day cowboys travel eastward from Los Angeles - the end of the traditional frontier - on decorated Harley-Davidson choppers on an epic journey into the unknown for the 'American dream'.]

According to slogans on promotional posters, they were on a search:

A man went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere.

Their costumes combine traditional patriotic symbols with emblems of loneliness, criminality and alienation - the American flag, cowboy decorations, long-hair, and drugs.

Both Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper co-starred, Fonda produced, and 32 year old Hopper directed (his first effort). [It was produced by B.B.S. (formed by Bob Rafelson - the director of Five Easy Pieces (1970), Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner), already known for the groundbreaking, surrealistic Head (1968), a cult masterpiece that starred the Monkees (from the popular TV series) and was co-written by unemployed actor Jack Nicholson.] Fonda (as lead actor), Hopper (as uncredited second unit director), and Jack Nicholson (as screenwriter) had participated in director Roger Corman's low-budget, definitive LSD film The Trip (1967) a few years earlier. And Fonda had also starred in Roger Corman's and American International's ground-breaking The Wild Angels (1966) - a biker's tale about the 'Hell's Angels'. The first scenes to be shot were on grainy 16 mm. in New Orleans (during Mardi Gras) on a budget of $12,000, afterwards followed by funds for a total budget of $380,000.

This follow-up film to The Wild Angels (1966) premiered at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival and won the festival's award for the Best Film by a new director. The film received two Academy Award nominations: Best Original Screenplay (co-authored by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern - known previously for scripting Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or... (1964)), and Best Supporting Actor for Jack Nicholson in one of his earlier, widely-praised roles as a drunken young lawyer.

Easy Rider surprisingly, was an extremely successful, low-budget (under $400,000), counter-cultural, independent film for the alternative youth/cult market - one of the first of its kind that was an enormous financial success, grossing $40 million worldwide. Its story contained sex, drugs, casual violence, a sacrificial tale (with a shocking, unhappy ending), and a pulsating rock and roll soundtrack reinforcing or commenting on the film's themes. Groups that participated musically included Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, The Band and Bob Dylan.

The pop cultural, mini-revolutionary film was also a reflection of the "New Hollywood," and the first blockbuster hit from a new wave of Hollywood directors (e.g., Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese) that would break with a number of Hollywood conventions. It had little background or historical development of characters, a lack of typical heroes, uneven pacing, jump cuts and flash-forward transitions between scenes, an improvisational style and mood of acting and dialogue, background rock 'n' roll music to complement the narrative, and the equation of motorbikes with freedom on the road rather than with delinquent behaviors.

However, its idyllic view of life and example of personal film-making was overshadowed by the self-absorbent, drug-induced, erratic behavior of the filmmakers, chronicled in Peter Biskind's tell-all Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock 'N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1999). And the influential film led to a flurry of equally self-indulgent, anti-Establishment themed films by inferior filmmakers, who overused some of the film's technical tricks and exploited the growing teen-aged market for easy profits. Hopper's success with this film gave him the greenlight from Universal Pictures (and $850,000) for his next project The Last Movie (1971) which ended up being a colossal failure, due in part to reports of drug-induced orgies during filming, and its year-long editing process (delayed by alleged use of psychedelic drugs for 'inspiration').

The Story

One morning, two free-wheeling, long-haired, social misfits/dropouts/hippies ride up to La Contenta Bar, south of the border in Mexico. With Jesus (Antonio Mendoza), they walk around the side of the bar through an auto-wrecking dump yard. After Jesus scoops out a small amount of white powder (cocaine) onto a mirror, they both sniff the dope. In Spanish, the thinner, calmer one chuckles: "Si pura vida (Yes, it's pure life.)" Then, he hands a packet of money to Jesus who thumbs through it and smiles. The two bikers, who have presumably orchestrated the decision to buy the cocaine in Mexico, are given cases of the powder in the drug deal.

Before the film cuts to the next scene, the loud noise of a jet engine plays on the soundtrack. In the next scene of their dope deal, they are now in California where they have smuggled the drugs for sale to a dealer. The two are on an airport road next to the touch down point of jet planes at Los Angeles International Airport - the sound of approaching planes is excruciatingly loud. A Rolls Royce pulls into the frame with their Connection (Phil Spector, the famous rock and roll producer in a cameo role). While testing the white powder in the front seat of their white pickup truck, the Connection ducks every time a plane lands. In exchange for the drugs, the Bodyguard (Mac Mashourian) gives a large quantity of cash to one of the bikers in the front seat of the Rolls. The drug deal is finalized to the tune of Steppenwolf's "The Pusher," a song which is overtly against hard-drug pushers and dealing.

You know I smoked a lot of grass
Oh Lord, I popped a lot of pills
But I've never touched nothin'
That my spirit could kill
You know I've seen a lot of people walkin' round
With tombstones in their eyes
But the pusher don't care
Aw, if you live or if you die
God damn the Pusher
God damn, hey I say the Pusher
I said God damn, God damn the Pusher man.

With the stash of money they've made from selling drugs, they have financed their trip, including the purchase of high-handled motorcycles. One of them rolls up the banknotes and stuffs them into a long plastic tube that will be inserted snake-like into the tear-drop shaped gas tank of his stars-and-stripes decorated motorcycle. The two part-time drug dealers are:

Wyatt casts off his wristwatch to the ground, a literal and symbolic flourish that shows his new-found freedom and rejection of time constraints in modern society. As they take to the open road on their motorcycles, cross the Colorado River and pass through unspoiled buttes and sand-colored deserts, the credits begin to scroll, accompanied by the sound of the popular song by Steppenwolf: "Born To Be Wild." It is the start of a beautiful adventure as they travel through memorable landscapes of America's natural beauty, accompanied by the pounding of rock music.

Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Lookin' for adventure
And whatever comes our way

Chorus 1
Yeah, darlin' gonna make it happen
Take the world in a love embrace
Fire all of the guns at once and
Explode into space.

I like smoke and lightnin'
Heavy metal thunder
Racin' with the wind
And the feelin' that I'm under
Repeat of Chorus 1

Chorus 2
Like a true nature's child
We were born, born to be wild
We can climb so high
I never wanna die.
Born to Be Wild
Born to Be Wild...


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