I’m not exactly a motorcycle kind of guy. Though, the one time I have ridden on one the experience was pretty strange. It was when I visited Indonesia almost 15 years ago. I was just a passenger, but this village we were in didn’t understand the concept of traffic laws. My driver, who was just a teenager, zig zagged around the road dodging pedestrians, bicycles, chickens, you name it. It was nerve wracking. Far from the wind-in-your-hair as you drive through a majestic American landscape imagery that we get in the quintessential motorcycle movie, 1969’s Easy Rider.
The film centers on two free spirits, Billy (Dennis Hopper, who also directed) and Wyatt, aka Captain America, (Peter Fonda). They begin by smuggling some cocaine and selling it to a dealer in the states. This gets them the money they need to make their way from LA to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Along the way they encounter many other people. They stop to make a repair on a farm where they share a meal with the farmer, his wife, and their many children. They then meet up with a hitchhiking hippie (Luke Askew) who leads them to a commune
Later, Billy and Wyatt ride into Las Vegas, New Mexico (which I visited myself a few years ago) and join in with a parade. This gets them thrown in jail where they share a cell with a young drunk lawyer, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). George, who is well known to the local police, sweet talks all of them out of prison and then he joins in the journey. As they make their way closer to New Orleans, they encounter other people who are not as friendly to members fo the counter-culture, such as they are.
I’ve got to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what to say about Easy Rider. This was my first time watching it and I thought it was absolutely brilliant in its simplicity. I knew going in that this is considered one of the essential films to deal with 60’s counter culture. One could even say that in light of its ending, and the fact that it was released essentially on the eve of entering the 70’s, that it represents the end of that time in American history. I guess I was expecting a film that tries very hard to say, “what you’re watching is important.” That’s not Easy Rider, though. Easy Rider just…is. It doesn’t try hard to be deep, it just unfolds in a very natural way as two guys try to find their version of the American dream.
For me, I found the visuals of Easy Rider to be the film’s most compelling element. Hopper lets the camera linger on scenery…images as grand as the towers of Monument Valley and as simple as the girders overhead as the motorcycles pass over a bridge. It’s precisely the kind of things that I tend to stare out the window at when I am making my way across America’s highways.
The movie does get a bit trippy, especially in a sequence toward the end of the film where Karen Black and future “Mickey” singer Toni Basil join the two leads in a drug-fueled journey through a New Orleans cemetery. This film famously kept things real and used actual illegal substances for several of its scenes. Easy Rider may also be one of the greatest marriages of visuals and music ever put on film. The opening credits sequence set to Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” has pretty much elevated that song to being the official anthem of the American highway. Well, at least it is for those of you who drive motorcycles. Us minivan folks crank “Holiday Road” from National Lampoon’s Vacation.
So, while I may not ever be in the market for a Harley, I found Easy Rider to be a completely enthralling film. It’s a great American adventure story…visually striking and magnificent in its simplicity.