Easy Rider Blu-ray review
Michael takes a cinematic classic for a high definition spin, as he reviews Easy Rider on Blu-ray...
A friend of mine once called Easy Rider ‘the most random film ever’; that is not a very good assessment. It is one of those early landmarks in what is called the New Hollywood movement in American cinema from the late 1960s onwards which have been superseded by more accomplished, accessible and – importantly – popular films from the 1970s. Nevertheless, it retains an integral place in the history of the art form, and its ambitions, intentions and perspective still ring true to the present day.
Case in point: with Easy Rider, the lunatics were in control of the asylum. Essentially a low-budget, independent style project, erstwhile actors Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, acting as director and producer respectively, developed the film with the funding of Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, the young industry boffins that had made big bucks by smuggling the counterculture into the mainstream with The Monkees. The two were given creative freedom to work on their idea: a motorcycle road movie with two enigmatic modern-day cowboys surveying post-Kennedy America.
They took inspiration from the exploitation movies of Roger Corman, who, at that point, was using sex, drugs and motorcycles to make quick, cheap, but ultimately successful movies like The Wild Angels and The Trip, but their ambitions were more personal. Hopper and Fonda wanted to use Easy Rider to show America as they – and their hip buddies – saw things, with a killer soundtrack of songs pulled from their favourite records (Jimi Hendrix, The Band, Steppenwolf).
They experienced things differently from the squares of the moral majority, and were vilified for their drug taking and free loving. This all seems horrendously arrogant as we look back, but one of Easy Rider‘s key strengths is this sense of perspective. It was a counterculture film distributed by Columbia Pictures, a sensitive, yet conflicted view of an American youth culture that mainstream Hollywood had yet to fully comprehend. And it did enormously well, making $19 million in its first year domestically, and $60 million by 1972 worldwide.
It is easy to get sucked into talking about history when assessing old films such as Easy Rider (and it is old – as much time has passed between then and now, as between then and the Wall Street Crash), but the film itself is prickly, jagged and still fresh.
When the two bikers, Wyatt and Billy (or Captain America and Bucky; Fonda and Hopper respectively), make a big sale smuggling narcotics across the Mexican border at the start of the film, they are already doomed. As they travel across the Southern states, coming across noble ranchers, LSD-peddling (and ultimately exploitative) hippy communes and bigoted rednecks, and look for solace in drinking, women and drugs, they are inevitably disappointed, only met with alienation, violence and decaying values.
It is all very rich in its symbolism, but has all the subtlety of a psychedelic protest song, seen in its overt manhandling of American iconography (Wyatt wears a leather jacket emblazoned with the stars and stripes, a motif repeated on his bike’s teardrop tank) and often broad supporting straw-men. Although, this is not to the film’s detriment, as it has a roughshod quality that often brings up startling, effective sequences.
Filmed mostly in a gonzo, on-the-road style, using outdoor locations and natural lighting, Easy Rider nonetheless features some moments of resourceful beauty. Laszlo Kovacs’ camerawork is framed by the American landscape, with Monument Valley and other parts of what Fonda calls ‘John Ford’s America’ popping up from time to time. Likewise, other scenes feature either non-professional actors, or professional actors under off-kilter circumstances – such as Warren Finnerty being asked to remove his false teeth to play the Rancher, or an electrifying sequence in a small town diner, where a select few locals were invited to unleash catcalls, insults and abuse on the bikers.
In comparison, Fonda and Hopper seem like ill-defined avatars, one distant and cool, and the other amphetamine-crazy. The film’s heart, and ace-in-the-hole, comes from Jack Nicholson, an actor who, like the two leads, had long worked with Corman, and was considering giving up on his acting career, before his role in Easy Rider brought him to mainstream prominence (earning him his first Academy Award nomination). His performance as ACLU-affiliated lawyer – and full-time drunk – George Hanson is finely nuanced and relatable in comparison to the oddly caricatured characters that come up elsewhere in the film. He is educated and open-minded, yet still understandably shaky when Captain America shoves a finely shaped spliff under his nose.
The film’s ending, with spontaneous eruptions of aggression, and abrupt deaths, is more awkward than enlightening. A closing scene, in which Billy enthuses over how they have the ‘big money’, and can now ‘retire in Florida’, only to be met by an enigmatic ‘we blew it’ from Wyatt, reaches for an elusive sense of poetry – to match the Nouvelle Vague-inspired editing, or the relatively avant-garde psychedelia of its cemetery-bound LSD trip sequence – that is ever so slightly outside of its grasp. Nevertheless, while its artistic qualities may be obscured by even its contemporaries, with M.A.S.H., Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate all having more grace and subtlety, Easy Rider has a visceral impact that is hard to deny.
This 40th anniversary Blu-ray package is actually a little underwhelming. The extras are ported over from the 35th anniversary DVD, which isn’t too much of a problem, as both Dennis Hopper’s audio commentary and the 1999 documentary Shaking The Cage (itself made for the film’s 30th anniversary) are informative and engaging. The latter, in particular, is engrossing, entertaining stuff.
While it is a little ramshackle, and features an awkward score from aging-Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, the documentary gets great mileage out of simple talking heads from Hopper, Fonda, and other production notables (such as Kovacs, associate producer Bill Hayward, and production manager Paul Lewis). All involved have the benefit of hindsight and reflection, speaking of the roaring fights, groundbreaking perspectives and indulgent ambitions of the film with insight and humour. This is a film whose production process is just as interesting as its narrative content, after all, and the collected anecdotes about the inspiration, financing, filming, soundtrack, reception and legacy of Easy Rider are fascinating.
The Blu-ray image is much sharper, and looks better than the DVD version, which looked quite washed out. This isn’t an illuminating restoration, however. Indeed, it is certainly the best looking edition of Easy Rider on the market, but, as the charms and artistry of the original film – especially Kovacs’ cinematography – rely more on resourcefulness than technology, only fidelity-freaks will be truly impressed.
That, with the added Blu-ray bells and whistles (such as a new menu, with horrible Southern Fried chugging blues riffs looping over and over), is all that is new with this set. Bearing in mind that the DVD is available in a variety of online and high street shops for a budget price, the Blu-ray edition of Easy Rider might be only for those with money to burn.
Easy Rider is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.