A Cinematic Revolution | Easy Rider 50 Years On
In nineteen-sixty-nine the world experienced the heights of the hippy-movement and Jimi Hendrix’s guitar soared over Woodstock signaling the highs. Then of course the world witnessed the lows as the Manson Family murders rocked the Los Angeles hills. Whilst in December of that year, The Rolling Stones played Altamont outside San Francisco, where the ‘Hells Angels’ rampaged, killing African-American Meredith Hunter. These dark-days called a halt to the dreams of a generation, as murder and violence extinguished the notions of peace and love.
In the midst of all these situations, the revolution became cinematic with the release of the ultimate road movie, Easy Rider. This outsider montage fired a shot of rebellious-equality into the heart of a country. A country torn apart by racial hatred, the Vietnam War and a desire to change without the knowledge of how to.
As a movie, it brought all the underground notions and views to surface. These ideals danced in the daylight as Easy Rider displayed the counter-culture stripped to its bare bones. Where the lost innocence and truth of the movement was displayed for all the world to see, not just those in San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Looking back fifty-years later it is easy to recognize its impact on cinema in the nineteen-seventies. It may not have single handedly made large studios sit up and take notice of low-budget, independent movies but it did reinforce the idea. Easy Rider landed hot on the heels of well-received hits The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, gathering huge earnings of sixty million on top of a modest budget. Yet what’s even more significant is what the movie represents as an artistic statement.
Dennis Hopper said “‘Easy Rider’ was never a motorcycle movie to me. A lot of it was about politically what was going on in the country.” The search for the American Dream is first and foremost at the core of Easy Rider, an outlaw movie which takes the standard story of the Spaghetti Western and places it on a highway instead of a high plain and a Harley-Davidson instead of a horse.
As the strains of the Steppenwolf biker-classic “Born to Be Wild” erupt, the perfect picture of cool appears on screen: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as ‘Wyatt’ and ‘Billy’ (note: Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid), on slick motorcycles with the wind in their hair, speeding down a highway. The clever use of symbolism as Fonda is draped with the American flag on his leathers and helmet as well as across the bike itself. Hopper on the other hand is more reminiscent of the cowboy with the brown and tanned leathers.
At this point Peter Fonda was already the cool cat who got the cream, a poster boy for the new revolution after starring in The Wild Angels in sixty-six and the Jack Nicholson penned The Trip in sixty-seven. Easy Rider was an extension of The Trip, the characters were drawn from the same universe. And of course Jack Nicholson is the third star of Easy Rider – although only appearing in the second half of the movie – it was still enough to open the doors of his career and lead to a string of memorable films.
The heavily repeated plot surrounding the two main characters is the ultimate in outlaw art. Having just traveled back to Los Angeles to deliver drugs from Mexico, the pair decide to take a spiritual journey to New Orleans and celebrate Mardi Gras. With the money itself hidden in the gas-tank of Fonda’s ‘Captain America’ bike, the pair set off; igniting hatred inside the heart of the Deep South.
The way in which the movie was constructed is a testament to its originality, although a script existed, by writer Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove), a lot of the dialogue became ad-libbed. This move made the incendiary Dennis Hopper claim a writer’s credit along with a director’s credit, one which earned him a First Film Award at the 1969 Cannes film festival. As for the assertion on the writing, it was one the late Hopper staked until his death in 2010.
With the prominence of drug use in the counterculture, the shaky – and at times psychedelic nature of the movie – was shot with the intention of replicating the drug experience to the viewer. Although the scenes shot in the New Orleans cemetery showed the actual use of marijuana and other drugs instead of a substitute.
Within the Easy Rider soundtrack is another of the reasons the movie is of great importance and cannot be neglected. The aforementioned production budget originally stood at $400,000 only to shoot up by a further million due to music licensing owing to the inclusion of the heavyweights of the day including Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, The Band and two Bob Dylan-penned numbers alongside the title track sung by Roger McGuinn.
As a separate entity the soundtrack stood on its own merit, similar to The Graduate, reinforcing the potential of another revenue stream. In the nineties Quentin Tarantino used this to spectacular effect with the Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs soundtracks, a must in the compact disc buyers collection at the time. Though common now, Easy Rider was seen as the first movie to use ‘found music’, a term used to describe using music not intentionally written exclusively for a film.
“You know Billy, we blew it”, say Wyatt. While open to interpretation, it’s generally noted that the quote was a reflection of the decade; they had the chance to change but instead let the ideals slip away. It is its final scenes where the film reflects the tensions embedded in the nation as Wyatt is shot down from his motorbike by a passing pickup truck mirroring the disillusionment towards American Dream, his rider-less bike ending the scene.
The road movie tries to portray the truths behind America at the end of the sixties, the widespread paranoid-tensions that exist are explored and executed dramatically, just as the central characters are. Easy Rider is a telling experience which still vibrates today, showing that even fifty-years later those very tensions are still alive and fed with the very same prejudice through a well-organized system of delivery.