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EASY RIDER
35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson
Director:  Dennis Hopper
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  September 28, 2004

Film ***1/2

Easy Rider is one of the most uniquely American films ever made.  It perfectly captures the essence of freedom, while slyly questioning whether or not it’s really a value that we as a country still cherish.

Essentially an independent film distributed by a major studio, Easy Rider is the brainchild of co-stars and writers Peter Fonda (who produced) and Dennis Hopper (who directed).  It was simply a project that, in 1969, attempted to give the real spirit of the sixties a voice on film before the decade came to a close.  This was, I believe, the first major film to be so adamant and unapologetic about the use of drugs, for example.

Fonda and Hopper play Wyatt and Billy, respectively, two hippies taking the grand tour of the United States on their choppers.  Bikes they acquire, amusingly enough, at the beginning of the film by smuggling in some drugs from Mexico.  The embodiment of freedom, they set out on the highways with no agenda or schedule (aside from making it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras). 

Wyatt calls himself Captain America, and even has his bike, helmet, and jacket decked out in the stars and stripes.  Though not subtle, the message is clear:  Wyatt is freedom, and to hate him for the free lifestyle he represents is akin to hating what America stands for.

On their way, they meet up with a boozing lawyer, George (Nicholson), a character kind of caught in limbo between rigid America and free America.  He’s always wanted to go to New Orleans…even has a card from a reputable house of prostitution given to him by Louisiana’s governor…but confesses he’s never made it closer than the state line.  Before you know it, and wearing a football helmet, no less, George has joined the duo in their reckless abandon.

Along the way, Hopper finds ways to continually connect the characters’ experiences to that of America in general.  Often, he does it with locations, such as the Indian burial ground.  Native Americans are buried beneath where they sit, akin to the way America was basically built on top of their graves.  Or later, in New Orleans, they come across a different kind of cemetery, one where everybody is buried above ground…like many souls who seem dead, but somehow still exist in the world of the living. 

Other scenes seem to just represent a playful love of images, like the one where a man in the foreground shoes his horse while Wyatt in the background fixes his flat tire.  Is the biker the modern cowboy?  The image has certainly imbedded itself in our culture.  Is it a coincidence the characters’ names are Wyatt (as in Earp) and Billy (as in The Kid)?  Or for another example, a scene near the beginning, showing how people feed off the drugs, the drugs become money, then the money gets hidden in the gas tank.  Money, gas, and drugs…all fuels of one kind or another.  Thankfully, there is help for drug addiction in Louisiana.

Perhaps the most memorable scene is in a southern coffee house, where the trio sit around a table in the middle of the establishment, surrounded on all sides by redneck bigotry.  These people make their insulting, even threatening comments aloud, obviously meaning for them to hear.  It is an uncomfortable scene, as our protagonists figuratively seem surrounded by the wolves.  Later, in their final campfire scene, they reflect upon the nature of hatred.  It’s not because of their long hair, insists George—people hate them because they represent real freedom.  And those who look upon them have to come to terms with the fact that real freedom is something they lack in their own lives.  “Never tell a man he’s not free,” George muses.

These are the scenes in which the film reveals most of its truths.  On one hand, it’s easy to dismiss the dialogue as just the ramblings of stoners…in fact, the movie almost invites you to do just that.  But if you really listen to what they say, even when it’s a little crazy, you find that there are moments of depths within their words, as they seem to long for the America that is supposed to be, lost somewhere inside the America that truly is.

But perhaps more noteworthy than the pensive and quiet moments are the bigger, purely visual scenes.  This film boasts excellent cinematography, including some of the best tracking shots ever filmed.  The camera seems to weave effortlessly in and out and between the bikes as they ride.  It gives the picture its feeling of no rules, no restrictions.  And the backgrounds are always beautiful, capturing America at her picture postcard best…the world that’s beautiful on the surface, but sometimes dangerous if you happen to go looking too closely.

Oh, and for fun, keep an eye out for Toni Basil in a small role near the end.  “Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind…”  Yeah, that Toni Basil.

Video ***1/2

For a thirty year old film, this DVD is quite a triumph for Columbia Tri Star.  The digital transfer renders gorgeously, with quality, sharp imaging and excellent coloring throughout, with no bleeding.  Flesh tones look perfectly natural in any kind of lighting.  Even deep focus shots are crisp and detailed.  The picture mostly comes to life in its sunny, panoramic views of the American landscapes, but even has a few nicely rendered dark scenes.  Only a couple of times did the night scenes appear a little soft and grainy…very minor complaint. 

Audio **1/2

The soundtrack boasts some terrific and classic rock songs, and mostly comes to life during them.  To hear "Born to be Wild" booming from your speakers while the heroes ride is a real treat.  Otherwise, the new 5.1 soundtrack doesn't venture much into use of the rear speakers or the .1 channel.  Dialogue and music are clean and clear throughout, and that's the most important aspect here.

Features ***1/2

The disc boasts a commentary track from Dennis Hopper (surprisingly thoughtful and restrained), a terrific new documentary featuring interviews with Hopper, Fonda and others, as well as talent files and production notes.  The package also includes a bonus CD songtrack and the British Film Institute book Easy Rider.

Summary:

Easy Rider is a time capsule film, one that captured a specific moment in time in all it’s beauty, recklessness, humor, and even tragedy.  To experience it is to experience America, from the fun and glory on the surface to the sometimes distasteful undercurrents of fear and hate underneath.  35 years later, it remains one of the best and most important independent films to this day, as well as one of the most influential.

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