Some films captivate the zeitgeist of the American imagination so completely that they become instant cult favorites. But few such films prove potent enough to retain the favor of audiences in perpetuity. So the fact that, 35 years after the film’s release, audiences around the world are still captivated by the raw vision of Easy Rider is no small accomplishment.
Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are the quintessential hippie bikers. Cruising across America with a gas tank full of dope, these two dropouts are living the dream of freedom and rugged individuality. To this day, the image of Fonda and Hopper (neither of whom knew how to ride a motorcycle before making this film) careening helmetless down the open highway to the tune of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ defines the American biker motif more clearly than any Hell’s Angel could ever hope to.
Easy Rider is, as much as anything, a lengthy music video for the ’60s counterculture. But it also serves as an astonishingly honest perspective on the counterculture movement that it represents. Though Fonda and Hopper are decidedly of the ’60s experience, their portrayal of that experience is refreshingly free of the exuberantly over-romanticized tone that characterizes so many other films from this era. Communes of shroomed-out hippies are presented more or les without comment or criticism.
For every idyllic moment of peacenik dialogue, there’s a clip of some dysfunctional stoner making an ass of himself. Even the two protagonists appear reasonably flawed, though Hopper’s performance as the edgy and unbridled Billy is substantially more believable than Fonda’s more idealized Wyatt. Still, both roles hold their own under the lens of time.
Along the way, Billy and Wyatt find themselves in the drunk tank after crashing a small-town parade, and happen upon alcoholic attorney George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) who negotiates their release in exchange for a ride to New Orleans, where he hopes to find the most vaunted whorehouse in the American south. Since New Orleans happens to be Billy and Wyatt’s final destination, they take on the new passenger and continue on their way.
But all is not well in the land of the freewheelers. A brief run-in with a few yokels in yet another Podunk ultimately leads to their undoing, though not before a protracted acid trip that sets the standard for cinematic hallucination portrayals for years to come.
Though Easy Rider is driven by a compellingly intelligent script and strong acting, it’s a clear example of some characteristically bad editing, overwhelmingly naïve psychedelic montages, and clumsy transitions. While these hallmarks of ’60s editing may not have troubled the stoned hippy audiences of 1969, they’re both annoying and distracting today. But the film is otherwise so visionary and smart that these setbacks can only be taken so seriously.
Whether you’re a filthy old hippy looking to recapture the glory of your delirious youth or a generation-Y pop punk who wants to know where it all began, Easy Rider is about as clear a window on the ’60s cultural milieu as you’re ever likely to find.