35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
Review by Michael Jacobson
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.