Eric D. Snider February 3, 2010
When you hear the title Easy Rider, there’s a good chance you start humming “Born to be Wild,” the rock anthem on the soundtrack that has come to represent the movie’s philosophy of youth, freedom, and drugs. Peter Biskind considered the movie so significant that he put it in the title of his New Hollywood history book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But this movie, about motorcycle-riding hippies on a road trip across America … what’s it about? Why does it matter? What’s the big deal, man?
The praise: The film’s screenplay and Jack Nicholson‘s supporting performance were nominated for Oscars, and director Dennis Hopper won the Best First Work award at the Cannes Film Festival. (To be fair, there was only one other film in that category.) The movie appears on the American Film Institute’s top 100 list, both the 1998 and 2007 surveys.
The context: It’s hard to imagine now, but until the late 1960s Hollywood studios didn’t pay much attention to young moviegoers. Films aimed specifically at teenagers and young adults tended to be cheap afterthoughts, not the raison d’etre they are for Hollywood now.
But in the ’60s there was a confluence of three events. One, the Baby Boomers — people born just after World War II — were becoming adults and, if only by their sheer numbers, starting to dominate American culture. Two, the first filmmakers to have actually gone to film school were breaking into the business. These guys (they were mostly guys) had studied film, learning its philosophies and techniques in a formal setting, while their predecessors had learned the craft on the job. Three, the Vietnam War and the other turbulent events of the decade had made many of these Baby Boomers jaded and suspicious of authority. The “rebels” of the ’50s, with or without causes, had been a fringe element, easily ignored or downplayed by Hollywood. Now there was a big pot-smoking elephant in the room, and the movies couldn’t ignore it — especially now that the Boomers themselves were the ones making the movies.
Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, both from 1967, had achieved extraordinary critical and financial success by tapping into that young market. For the first time, viewers in their early 20s were seeing characters that they could relate to, with the levels of sex and violence that they considered realistic, not the watered-down phoniness of Old Hollywood. This new movement came to be called New Hollywood, and its directors included Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, and a couple dozen others.
Easy Rider was shot in the early months of 1968, when The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde were still in theaters — before anyone really knew the impact they would have, in other words. Unlike those films, which had studio backing, Easy Rider was a truly independent production, made for very little money, none of it from a studio, with all the creative decisions in the drug-addled hands of the filmmakers.
Drugs played a huge part in the film, both on-screen and off. Legend has it the filmmakers threw a wrap party after “finishing” the movie before realizing they’d forgotten to shoot a pivotal final scene. Roger Ebert, reflecting on the film years later, wrote that “it did a lot of repeat business while the sweet smell of pot drifted through theaters.”
The movie: Two hippies, called Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), make a load of cash on a drug deal, hop on their motorcycles, and head from California toward New Orleans, where they hope to arrive in time for Mardi Gras. Along the way, they encounter much persecution and harassment because of their longhaired hippie ways. They also visit a commune, smoke a lot of marijuana, and ingest some other illicit substances.
What it influenced: One of the film’s most significant contributions was its soundtrack, composed primarily of pre-existing rock songs that the film’s editor, Donn Cambern, had listened to while he worked. Licensing for these songs cost $1 million, more than twice what the film had cost to make. But it was worth it. The soundtrack added immeasurably to the film’s youth appeal, thus enhancing its box-office gross, and the album itself sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Before this, rock ‘n’ roll in movies was mostly limited to Elvis Presley musicals and beach party films. A compilation album featuring songs not written specifically for the movie, and recorded by numerous different artists working for different record labels, was unheard of. The Easy Rider LP changed that, opening the door for soundtracks like American Graffiti, The Big Chill, and Almost Famous. Today, almost all films, especially youth-oriented ones, have compilation soundtracks. In fact, the trend became so common that it eventually hurt Easy Rider: The album went out of print in the 1980s and ’90s because the record labels, who’d had no problem with the silly soundtrack idea in 1969, were now overly familiar with the process and no longer wanted to license their songs without charging an arm and a leg. I suspect the film’s hippies would have a few choice words for that attitude.
Jack Nicholson, appearing only in the second half of the film, earned a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance and was launched into stardom, aided considerably by Five Easy Pieces a year later, which got him his first Best Actor nomination. He was lucky, too — his role in Easy Rider was supposed to have been played by Rip Torn, who dropped out early in the production after arguments with Hopper. (A great many interesting things in Hollywood have happened because of arguments with Dennis Hopper.)
Easy Rider grossed $60 million worldwide — which would be about $300 million at today’s ticket prices — and shocked Hollywood into the realization that, what do you know, young people like to see movies about themselves. Prior to this, counter-culture figures, if depicted cinematically at all, were side characters or villains, not protagonists, and young people in general were portrayed like the squares in the beach party movies. Easy Rider spoke to a segment of society that felt marginalized by the Establishment, a segment that had rarely been reflected in movies.
Roger Ebert, age 27 when the film came out, loved it, and wrote in his four-star review, “I suspect many members of the Hollywood older generation believe, sincerely and deeply, that Easy Rider doesn’t have a story, and doesn’t mean anything, and that the kids are all crazy these days.” He was right about that. The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby, age 45, wrote condescendingly:
Easy Rider … is a motorcycle drama with decidedly superior airs about it. How else are we to approach a movie that advertises itself: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere”? Right away you know that something superior is up, that somebody is making a statement, and you can bet your boots (cowboy, black leather) that it’s going to put down the whole rotten scene. What scene? Whose? Why? Man, I can’t tell you if you don’t know. What I mean to say is, if you don’t groove, you don’t groove. You might as well split.
Hollywood’s first response to the film’s success, of course, was to crank out more really cheap movies that catered to — OK, pandered to — the rebellious youth culture. Most of these were terrible and have titles you wouldn’t recognize. But over time the studios learned how to really target teenagers and young adults, whom they hadn’t taken seriously before. Easy Rider, along with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, caused a major shift in thinking. Films like Transformers represent a perversion in that thinking, where films aren’t just made for young people, they’re made ONLY for young people.
Hopper, who’d had moderate success as a TV and movie actor before this, thought he’d have a career as a director after Easy Rider. His next film, though, called The Last Movie (and it almost was), was even more absurd, non-linear, and minimalist than Easy Rider had been, and audiences and critics rejected it. He didn’t direct another film until 1980; today he’s primarily known as an actor.
What to look for: Many of the New Hollywood filmmakers were inspired by the French New Wave, which we discussed in conjunction with Jules and Jim. Easy Rider has many of the stylistic flourishes, including the occasional burst of frantic editing, zooms, and close-ups. It also has the stark realism, the casual dialogue, the natural lighting, and the same kind of less-than-happily-ever-after ending as many New Wave films.
You might think a movie made by young people aimed at a youthful audience would be fast-paced and energetic. You would be mistaken. Easy Rider has only the barest wisp of a plot, and there are many, many scenes of the guys riding motorcycles. The film’s editor originally put the rock songs over those scenes to make the footage more interesting while he was editing them, and it helps tremendously. If you get into the rhythm of the movie — the freedom of the open road, the easy-goin’ rock tunes playin’ — you can get a sense of what 1969 audiences saw in it. Of course, to really feel what they felt, you’d probably need to smoke some grass first, but I cannot publicly endorse that.
The guys are on the road looking for “freedom.” They talk about freedom a lot. Your discussion question for afterward is: Did they find it? Why or why not? What does “freedom” mean, anyway? Explain your answers in a paragraph and turn it in at the beginning of class next week.
Oh, and Captain America and Billy visit a whorehouse in Louisiana. The women whose services they hire are played by Karen Black and Toni Basil. And in an early scene, the man who buys drugs from the guys, sitting in a car and wearing huge glasses, is record producer Phil Spector, in his pre-wife-killing days.
What’s the big deal: It’s easy to write Easy Rider off as a movie made by hippies, for hippies, and fueled by copious amounts of drugs. And while that’s all true, it’s somewhat reductive. Hopper, who had never directed anything before, was in over his head, and trying to emulate the French New Wavers his first time out was ill-advised. Nonetheless, there’s a certain charm in seeing a new filmmaker strive so earnestly to replicate the style of someone he admires. Whether the film is entertaining to a 21st-century audience or not, the moviegoers of 1969 — the people it was made for, the people it spoke to — saw themselves in it. Think of the times you’ve felt like a movie was speaking to you. That’s pretty far out, man.
Further reading: As always, wait until you’ve seen the movie before reading these items.
Here’s a review of the soundtrack album that has some insight into the compilation process.
Here’s a fascinating interview with the film’s cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs, from 2004, offering plenty of juicy behind-the-scenes information.
And here’s the always insightful Tim Dirks discussing the film in detail at AMC’s Filmsite.
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Eric D. Snider (website) was born to be wilder — Laura Ingalls Wilder.
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