actor-director, Altamont, America, American Dream, Best Original Screenplay nominee, Best Supporting Actor nominee, bikers, Billy, Bob Dylan, Born to Be Wild, buddy films, Captain America, Charles Manson, cinema, classic movies, counter-culture films, counterculture, Dennis Hopper, directorial debut, Easy Rider, end of an era, film reviews, films, friendship, hippies, Hoyt Axton, Jack Nicholson, Luke Askew, Mardi Gras, motorcycles, Movies, Oscar nominee, Palme d'Or nominee, Peter Fonda, Phil Spector, rednecks, road movie, road trips, Sharon Tate, Steppenwolf, the American Dream, the Manson Family, The Pusher, Wyatt
When, exactly, did the Summer of Love go up in flames? Conventional wisdom usually points to Altamont, in December 1969, as the point where the promise of free love and hippy Utopianism soured. For my money, though, I always pinpointed Sharon Tate’s murder, on August 9th of the same year, as the real tipping point. Even though the Woodstock festival (usually seen as the pinnacle of “hippyism”) would follow Tate’s murder by less than a week, I always viewed that as sneaking one last one in before Manson and his followers nailed down the coffin lid. By the time the Mason family had cemented their terrible legacy, it was pretty apparent that the shiny red apple of peace, love and harmony contained more than its fair share of rot. While Altamont may have slammed the door shut, it had begun to close long before then. In fact, some folks could see the end way before then: when Dennis Hopper’s now-iconic Easy Rider was first released, in May 1969, who could know that the man would seem like Nostradamus a mere seven months later?
Easy Rider is many things: a buddy film…a road movie…a counter-culture landmark…a return to the sensibilities of On the Road at a time when that attitude seemed not only passe but quaint…a drug movie…a critique of the fractured America of the ’60s…More than anything, however, Easy Rider serves as a death knell, a dire warning from one of the original “freak-flag-flyers” that times were changing and that the peace-and-love hippies were about to be swept from the Earth in the same way that the dinosaurs once were. You could stay the same, he posited, but you would die: that was a given. You could, of course, leave behind your ideals and survive by evolving into something else entirely, something colder, more calculating, less romantic. But isn’t this, in the end, the same sort of death as offered in the first option? Above all else, however, Hopper was making concrete the words of Bob Dylan, albeit casting them in a much darker light than Dylan originally intended: the times, indeed, were a changin’.
As a film, Easy Rider has a pretty simple structure: it’s essentially a series of vignettes featuring Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda), usually addressed as “Captain America.” As the two men travel around the back-roads of America, they meet with an odd assortment of characters, including a hitchhiker (Luke Askew) and his hippy commune, a drunken lawyer (Jack Nicholson), lots of rednecks and some good, old-fashioned, middle-American squares. They sell cocaine to Phil Spector (not the “person” of Phil Spector but the actual man: he’s billed as “The Connection” and wears one seriously yellow suit, complete with matching gloves and glasses), visit a whorehouse in New Orleans and leave a diner one step ahead of an angry mob of rednecks and small-town cops.
For the most parts, events in the film fall into a pretty basic formula: the duo rides to a new place, Billy acts like a square, the Captain tells him to chill out, there’s a musical interlude and the whole thing repeats. Each interlude, however, serves as a way for Hopper (who also wrote the screenplay, with Fonda) to dig a little deeper into the whole notion of the “American Dream.” The opening pre-credits drug-dealing sequence begins with Steppenwolf’s version of “The Pusher,” before their iconic “Born to Be Wild” slams us right into the credits. It’s a subtle way to establish Billy and the Captain’s manifesto (they do whatever they want, man), while also commenting on changes in the pop culture zeitgeist: “The Pusher” was written by Hoyt Axton, a popular folk singer in the early ’60s but it was Steppenwolf’s cover, not the original, that Hopper used. As one of the “heavier” new bands to emerge in the late ’60s, Steppenwolf was a good representation of the direction music was taking, at the time, away from the folk and early rock of the ’60s and into the hard rock and metal of the ’70s. Steppenwolf was pushing Axton out, just as the darker mid-late ’60s was crowding out the peace and optimism of the earlier part of the decade.
They end up on the hitchhiker’s commune but don’t get to stay long: the hippies end up picking on and ostracizing Billy, leading us to the notion that maybe these “peaceniks” aren’t quite as nice as they first seem. Although he couldn’t have known it at the time, Hopper was prophesying what would happen with the Manson family: the hippy exterior concealed a dangerous, deranged interior. Lest it be thought that Hopper is unduly picking on the counterculture (which is rather absurd, since he’s been a genuine, card-carrying member of the counterculture for his entire life/career), we also get scenes like the ones where Billy and the Captain get arrested for “parading without a permit” in a small town and are, essentially, chased out of a diner by a group of locals (including the sheriff) that are a few pitchforks away from the mob in Frankenstein. If the counterculture isn’t necessarily who they say they are, then the average middle-American “square” is exactly what they seem to be: small-minded, suspicious, frightened and utterly resentful of the “freedom” that Billy and the Captain represent. That these small-town folk and rednecks will, ultimately, end up being the undoing of Billy, the Captain and George (Nicholson) is certainly telling: although the counterculture has begun to collapse from the inside, its greatest threat still comes from the outside – the world at large.
All of these events eventually culminate in a truly apocalyptic ending for Billy and the Captain (and poor George, of course), although it’s a finale that would probably only provoke a shrug from the kinds of people who helped perpetrate it: those long-haired, weird bastards got what was coming to them. While the finale few moments of Easy Rider holds the answer to Billy and the Captain’s fates, it’s a moment just before that actually spells everything out for an entire generation. After finally achieving their “goal” of visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras and surviving everything that came before, Billy is absolutely triumphant: they’re both “rich” now, thanks to the opening drug deal and have finally “made it.” “That’s what you do, man,” he tells the Captain, “you go for the big money.” The Captain’s response, however, takes the wind out of not only Billy’s sails but our own, as well: “We blew it, man.” By compromising their principles and losing sight of the “big picture” (changing the world for the better), Billy and the Captain (along with the entire “Free Love” movement) have truly “blown it.” The true extent wouldn’t be felt for some time, of course, but the writing was on the wall: whatever moment might have existed was now past and the movement would continue to spin out into irrelevance.
As a pivotal moment in the history of the counterculture, Easy Rider, much like Kerouac’s On the Road, cannot be easily discounted. Although certain elements have, by necessity, become dated, the overall themes and angles of the film hold up surprisingly well. As a film, Easy Rider is quite good, with sterling performances from Hopper, Fonda and Nicholson, along with some excellent cinematography that is reminiscent of the same year’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s always a hoot to see Hopper play the “straight” guy, particularly with the decades of crazy characters that would come after this. Nicholson, in particular, is excellent, providing yet another example of why he became one of the most beloved actors of all time. There’s a sense of playfulness that easily recalls Depp’s work in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, although Nicholson owned this type of role for some time before Depp wandered down Jump Street.
If there can be any complaints, it would have to be that the film definitely becomes formulaic well before the ending, although the final 15 minutes are still some of the most powerful film moments ever. Even though the film seems a bit dated now (the commune scene, in particular, is of its era, complete with a truly bizarre mime performance and some really hippy-dippy philosophizing), it’s held up much better than similar films of the era, such as Fonda’s ultra-silly The Trip from a few years earlier. In the end, Easy Rider exists as both a fascinating curio of a forgotten era and a timely reminder that we must be ever vigilant, if we hope to truly change the world. As Sisyphus knew, the moment you quit pushing forward and forging new ground is the moment where the boulder begins to slide back down the hill. In the ’60s, the hippies managed to push the rock quite a ways up the hill. The tragedy, of course, is that it crushed them all on the way back down.