Easy Rider at 50: how the rebellious road movie shook up the system

In 1969, Dennis Hopper and friends set out to make one of the last great movies of the decade, changing independent film-making forever

It’s a matter of historical record that Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson smoked marijuana while shooting in character on the epochal road picture Easy Rider. They would not be the last to do so, and this writer would gladly wager that they weren’t the first, but posterity has cast them as the poster boys for the practice. More so than anyone else’s, their casual ingesting reflected a devil-may-care attitude that began with their characters – Captain America in biker leather Wyatt (Fonda), fringe-jacketed hippie Billy (Hopper) and their lawyer companion George (Nicholson) – and extended to the men themselves. When they light up, we catch a glimpse of something real, a roustabout spirit that director Hopper and his merry band lived as they acted it.

Situated at the end of its decade, Easy Rider literally and symbolically marks the turning point at which the idealism of the 60s curdled into the indulgent solipsism of the 70s. Though Wyatt and Billy’s long hair, sideburns, and far-out couture outwardly align them with the flower children and estrange them from squares at small-town diners giving disapproving looks, they’re far from avatars of peace and love. The tacit prologue, scripted solely in untranslated Spanish dialogue and the hurricane roar of a jet engine, follows the pair as they score several bags of high-purity cocaine in Mexico and then sell it to a client (hey there, Phil Spector!) back in Los Angeles. With a sealed plastic tube full of rolled-up cash stashed in his motorcycle’s fuel tank, Wyatt takes off with Billy for New Orleans in time to catch Mardi Gras. Their quest follows no imperative higher than the desire to live well and live freely.

They’re no heroes, and aside from the part they play in the international narcotics trade, they’re hardly villains. They wish specifically to exist without that dichotomy, to live outside of a close-minded society’s quality judgments about them. Stopping for their first night out, they decide to make camp in the woods instead of using some of their drug money to put themselves up at a motel. They balk at every form of organization, whether it be the humdrum suburbia epitomized by the marching-band parade they infiltrate or the bohemian commune they can’t help but depart. The generous montages depicting the guys astride their hogs, tearing down the highway to the strains of the soundtrack’s many classic-rock cuts, suggest this as their natural state.

Jack Nicholson as George and Peter Fonda as Wyatt in Easy Rider.
Jack Nicholson as George and Peter Fonda as Wyatt in Easy Rider. Photograph: CHANNEL 4 PICTURE PUBLICITY

In his essay for the booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection’s home video release, critic Matt Zoller Seitz describes the film as “a freewheeling take on freedom – what it means and what it costs”. While those shifting currents of the counterculture have a perceptible trapped-in-amber quality onscreen, somewhat more pronounced to a modern viewer is how Seitz’s notion applies on the other side of the camera. As much as it ended an era with the flaming crash at its conclusion, the film also launched a new era in its industry, one that gave auteurs unprecedented authority over themselves and their work.

Hopper had a reputation as an uncooperative collaborator, prone to delaying productions and arguing with directors while pursuing his inscrutable creative whims. Roger Corman was originally in talks to produce Easy Rider, and only split ties with the project after Hopper’s foul mouth and erratic behavior drove away a group of potential backers in one pitch meeting. To him, it was good riddance; he’d die before an artist such as himself would take orders from a bunch of pencil-necks in three-piece suits. Easy Rider hails from a time when abrasive guys with a lot of vision were given the economic latitude to run the show, or at least their own little slice of it. Hopper used the personal agency that production company Raybert would later allow him to adopt a film-making method befitting the credo he espouses in the film – the open road, no plan and endless possibility.

Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda star in Easy Rider.
Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda star in Easy Rider. Photograph: BFI

There’s a loose spontaneity to Wyatt and Billy’s sojourn borne out in the style of its documenting, an experimental aesthetic that mirrors the up-for-whatever mindset of its subjects. In one passage, a couple of girls have linked up with the caravan, and the four of them cool off by taking a swim in a watering hole they’ve happened upon. As the Byrds’ psychedelic Wasn’t Born to Follow (a clarion call to the wanderers if ever there was one) twangs away in the background, they frolic and goof around with no purpose in particular apart from enjoying themselves. Same goes for the film, which has just ground its already-lilting trajectory to a halt so that we can watch our main characters do nothing. “Doing nothing” emerges as Billy and Wyatt’s raison d’etre, a belief evidently shared by Hopper in his film’s defiant willingness to just be for a second, man.

Easy Rider blew open the gates for stranger techniques in the mainstream, and long-haired rebels on today’s indie fringes still ape Hopper’s whip-zooms and twitchy back-and-forth cutting. Still, his ramble through the American south stands out not only for its daring ethic, but also for the success with which it was received; Easy Rider earned distributor Columbia a staggering $60m gross, a sum unthinkable in today’s moviegoing climate. Hopper’s middle finger to the establishment struck a chord with a public in thrall of the country’s youth movements, who could relate to Billy and Wyatt’s desire to be and stay wild.

Tapping into that sentiment afforded Hopper and the trailblazers who’d follow his example their own version of the liberty he first prized without romanticizing. After all, as Wyatt mumbles around a lonely campfire, they blew it. Back in the real world beyond the frame, Hopper blew it too, parlaying the film’s popularity into his wrongfully maligned and slowly reclaimed follow-up The Last Movie, a financial failure that killed his career as a director for the rest of the ’70s. But for the summer of Easy Rider, he and his crew could live like their own biker gang, roving around and seeing what there is to see. For a film-maker, a workable budget might as well be a tube of coke money, and final cut rights feel a lot like freedom.


Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

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