There are some movies that have had a major cultural impact and some of these far more than quality of the movie itself seems to justify. “Easy Rider” is such a movie.
This is a low budget movie that seems to have been more or less invented as it was made. No one seems to agree who came up with the script, though Dennis Hopper is mostly credited with directing it. The first attempt at shooting in New Orleans appears to have ended in a drug-induced chaos and second attempt, using somewhat more professional technical staff was essentially a roadshow developing as it went. Or at least that was the impression I got from the behind-the-scenes feature.
All this is quite visible when you watch the movie. It has a laid-back style that does not need to explain anything. Two guys, Wyatt “Captain America” (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are two bikers who make their money smuggling cocaine from Mexico. After their latest haul they decide to go to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. This is the road trip that constitutes the majority of the movie. They encounter a variety of communities and people, all representing parts of the America of the period. There is the traditional farmer and his extended family, a hippie commune and rednecks who hate the counterculture of the era.
Along the way they make friends with the lawyer George (Jack Nicholson) who embraces the freedom of the bikers. With him they have some of the central dialogues of the movie, about how many people hate them because they represent a freedom, they are afraid to embrace and this fear makes them dangerous. Spoken shortly before those rednecks cave in his skull with clubs while he is sleeping.
This is also the essence of “Easy Rider”. It presents the counterculture as a challenge to the traditional America and this America lashes out at them in fear and hatred.
No wonder “Easy Rider” became the rallying point of much of the counterculture and the reference for much that happened in the following years.
Add to this a score that totally embraced the progressive music scene of the time, starting with Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” and it is difficult not to be caught up in the wave.
I bought in to the movie 100% and I fully understand the impact this must have had 50 years ago, but for me it was also quite an experience to watch three great actors very early in their careers. Dennis Hopper I had already met in “Cool Hand Luke” and “True Grit”, but this is the earliest film with recently deceased Peter Fonda and the great Jack Nicholson. What is really amazing here is how much they are free-wheeling and totally giving it as doped bikers. Awesome.
The ending of the movie is quite shocking, and I was totally unprepared for it since this was my first viewing. I do not want to spoil it, but when you think about it, it is actually the perfect ending in terms of message, especially when you consider that the characters are named Wyatt (Earp?) and Billy (the Kid?)…
Highly recommended. Not a great technical movie but with plenty of nerve to make up for that.