On paper, watching two long-haired men ride motorbikes across the south of the USA sounds boring as sin. But for many, this film is considered an American classic.
Easy Rider was co-written and directed by Dennis Hopper (the other co-writer and star being Hollywood legend Peter Fonda), which is a simple tale about two dudes on a trek from Los Angeles to the annual Mardi Gras in Louisiana. The film starts with the two of them smuggling drugs from Mexico into The States, which forces them to make the cross country journey in an attempt to sell them. Along the way, they meet a variety of people – men and women – but also encounter a bunch of small-town prejudices along the way.
I’ll start off by saying this: Forget Bryan Adams, the Summer of ‘69 belonged to Dennis Hopper.
You know when a film just perfectly captures a mood? That’s Easy Rider. You can basically feel what it was like to be a bit of an outcast in 60s and 70s America whilst watching this seminal American movie; what really stands out is the contrast between the typical Western-style scenery and the polished modernism of those damn gorgeous motorcycles. It marked a change in society and the emergence of counterculture upon its release, and is simply perfectly captured by Hopper in that regard.
Though I didn’t really think much of the story itself (very little happens in it, after all), that doesn’t really matter. This is a film that clearly aims to capture a moment more than a narrative, and the cinematography is honestly beautiful. You could frame 95% of these shots and they would stand up as a piece of art.
Despite the thinness of the plot, the ending shocked the hell out of me. Swiftly moving from an almost psychedelic montage of sex, religion and LSD to a peaceful return to the road, the film changes its tone in the blink of an eye when we finally find out what happens to our two anti-heroes in the end. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a finale that I did not see coming.
Most notably, this is one of the best popular music soundtracks I’ve found in a film. Not only does it contain legends of rock Jimi Hendrix and The Byrds, but it contains the timeless classic Born To Be Wild by Steppenwolf. Before 1969, you’d be hard pushed to find a soundtrack that was made up completely of popular songs from the era; it almost feels as if Easy Rider shaped the future of Hollywood soundtracking as we know and love it today.
It’s obvious why Jack Nicholson was Oscar nominated for this movie – he’s barely in it, yet he steals the entire show. That’s not to say that Hopper and Fonda don’t shine though. Fonda in particular is cooler than a cucumber here, and really grabs his character by the horns. Of course however, this is the film that shot Nicholson to fame, and it contains all the hallmarks of his greatest ever performances.
Personally, I won’t ever watch Easy Rider again, but I’m glad I struck it off my watchlist. It’s a true milestone in film that marks the end of “Old Hollywood”, and although not much happens, it’s a little piece of history.
Encapsulating counterculture with ease, it will surprise me if this is not placed into the National Film Registry in the near future.
Easy Rider is available to stream on Netflix in the UK.
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