Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Movies I Have Never Seen Part 5: 'Easy Rider'

Grab your helmet and here we go again with another long-delayed installment of famed movies I've finally gotten around to seeing or the first time....

Why it’s famous: “We blew it, man.” If you were making a time capsule of 1960s counterculture, “Easy Rider” would have to be at the top of the pile. The tale of two hippie pals aimlessly motorcycling across America, it’s a landmark movie – a slap in the face of complacent middle America culture, it opens with the leads snorting cocaine at a drug deal. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are ‘Captain America’ and Billy, antiheroes living the footloose dream. Along the way they pick up a drunken lawyer (Jack Nicholson in his breakthrough role) and dive deep into the heart of Americana.

What I thought: This is another one of those movies that you can kind of feel like you have seen even if you haven't -- it seeped into the popular consciousness long ago, and actually sitting down and watching "Easy Rider" for the first time in 2011 is -- well, kind of a trip, as the characters might say. It's darker than you might imagine. “Easy Rider” caught the zeitgeist in 1969 as hippie freedom clashes with rural America, and director, the late Dennis Hopper, wonderfully catches that sense of possibility and nightmare lurking on the wide open road.

Even the wall-to-wall rock soundtrack was pretty groundbreaking -- Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe owe Hopper a lot of their style. Using Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" is a huge cliche by now, but when it revs up over the opening credits, you still feel a visceral kick as audiences must have done back in '69.

Yet while "Easy Rider" is full of great imagery (nothing says "freedom" quite like two bikes roaring down a desert highway), as a movie it sputters a bit. Fonda and Hopper have a great time -- developing the personalities they'd basically explore for the rest of their careers, Fonda laconic and mellow yet authoritative, Hopper manic and frenzied. Yet the first half-hour or so of "Easy Rider" is often slow and unfocused, with some really irritating "flashy" scene cutting editing.

But then Jack Nicholson bounds into the movie about halfway through and hugely lifts the game – it’s a star-making turn in every sense of the word. Drawling in a Louisiana accent, and less over-the-top than he'd become as an actor, his George Benson is the voice of the audience in this film, both gently mocking the hippie travelers and yet longing to trip out with them. But for Jack's character it all ends horribly badly. It's a short performance - just 25 minutes or so - but Nicholson etches himself firmly in your mind and has most of the movie's best lines: "They'll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em."

And that to me is what surprises most about "Easy Rider" -- while I had often imagined it to be some free-love paean to the sixties, it's really a movie that shows how that image was never true. I was struck by the scenes at a remote hippie commune where the people are trying to live off the land and failing -- one long pan shows the faces of these dreamers at dinner, dazed, confused and strung-out looking, beaten down by the impossibility of trying to "get back to nature". It's hardly a positive advertisement for the lifestyle. Few people really seem to be enjoying their so-called "freedom." The visceral hatred that "townies" show to the traveling bikers is startling, savage, and yet very believable coming at the end of a turbulent decade. "Easy Rider" may show us a lot of freedom, but in the end it shows us the price it usually demands.

Worth Seeing: Yes, as long as you know going in you’re going to get a time capsule of 1969 Americana. The themes of “Easy Rider” are still relevant today once you get past the groovy dated bits, man, and while I wish I could say 40 years on America has become a far more tolerant country, there’s still work to be done.

Grade: B+


  1. Anonymous3:18 PM

    Thoughtful piece you've written here. I too saw it a few years back after thinking I knew what it was. Very dark, I wasn't prepared for that. But true, I think. And great performances, of course. - D.

  2. Yeah, man. I saw it when it was brand new, dig it, and it really blew my mind!

    Seriously, one of the other extraordinary things about that movie is that the soundtrack was largely comprised of existing music, NOT music written for the the movie. Common now, it was extraordinary then.