- Jul 8, 2001
Easy Rider: 35th Anniversary Edition
Studio: Columbia Tri-Star
Film Length: 95 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio: DD 5.1 & 2 channel
Subtitles: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai
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One of the seminal, generation-defining films of the sixties, “Easy Rider” also helps define the careers of the men who created it.
For Dennis Hopper, who directed, co-wrote and co-stars, it started a long and strange career – though not as a director.
For Peter Fonda, despite his long and distinguished career, it remains the role for which he was best remembered.
For Jack Nicholson, it was just the beginning.
But the real story of “Easy Rider” is the cultural wave it rode. Low budget even for its time, it was the first commercial film to capture the spirit of the sixties and deliver it, whole, to the screen.
Hopper, in his first directorial effort, worked with an amateur’s disregard for convention, using bizarre editing rhythms and a meandering plot structure that borrowed as much from art films as from the Hollywood pictures churned out for mass consumption.
The plot, such as it is, follows two drop-outs – drinkers, druggies, bikers – who make their way to Mardi Gras with a gas tank full of drug money. They travel through America, as they see it and it sees them. On their motorcycles, with their bizarre looks and long hair, middle-America looks at them with a mixture of amazement and contempt. It’s less a traditional, linear plot than a fine thread on which to hang the ongoing national discussions about drugs, morality, counterculture and rebellion.
Shot mostly on location, Laszlo Kovacks’ cinematography is nothing short of stunning. Riding across the country on two outrageously cool bikes, the imagery is often a better than adequate substitute for any possible plot or dialogue advancement.
The film’s third act and shocking climax, while essential to “Easy Rider’s” ideal, are almost an afterthought. This is film, first and foremost, about ideas. Moving from hovel to cave, to sleeping in the woods, the protagonists weave in and out of straight society. The Nicholson character reinforces that idea, loosening his tie, taking a belt of scotch and hopping on the back of a bike.
Whether the film advocates what it shows – drug use, disregard for societal norms – is up to the viewer. The tragedy that ends the film is essentially inevitable: the two heroes cannot continue to travel through the world with no safety net. The two riders are, to all appearances, the last of their kind.
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Previous releases of this film have been mediocre at best, with major film artifacts, particularly in the final act. While this is a problem that’s not completely eliminated here, marked improvements in detail and color make up for it. While this is the best this film has looked since its initial release, it’s still not entirely satisfying. This is almost certainly the fault of the source, and most of the film grain and artifacting is unobjectionable, adding to the film-like quality of the transfer. Black levels are fair to middlin’, as when Wyatt, Billy and George Hanson sit around the campfire. The screen’s edges are dark, but with little or no detail.
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Only once does the 5.1 remastering of the original soundtrack overstep its bounds: as Wyatt and Billy complete the drug deal that sets the plot in motion, the planes flying overhead zoom loudly through the surrounds. While it syncs well with the on-screen action, the effect is a bit too ostentatious. Whether it will age well is another story – as casual viewers become more and more accustomed to surround effects, it’s possible that this will become the way the film exists in the minds of many viewers. Whether that upsets you is a matter of personal taste. Mostly, though, the 5.1 track is superb. The soundtrack, with rocking Steppenwolf tracks, sounds crisp and loud, and dialogue is clear.
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Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage is a fine, informative making-of featurette which includes smart, funny, in-depth interviews with all the principals (save Nicholson). The shooting was about as you’d expect: drug addled, rag tag, informal. Kovacks and Hopper recount the creation of many memorable scenes and shots: the ride through the badlands; the time at the commune; the parade that lands them in jail. The doc ranges from the Big Ideas that informed the creation of the film to the minutiae of the production.
A Dennis Hopper Commentary track is mostly redundant if you’ve watched the very thorough making-of documentary. There are long periods of silence, and Hopper rarely discusses what’s actually on-screen. “I was never into motorcycles,” Hopper says in an early scene. Uh, ok. He talks a great deal about events in the film that won’t occur for quite some time. The commentary is best when he’s talking about the psychology of the film. He talks a great deal about his activism against the Vietnam war, and how it shaped his ideology of the film.
A CD featuring songs from the soundtrack includes the following:
Born to Be Wild – Steppenwolf
The Weight – Smith
Wasn’t Born to Follow – The Byrds
San Franciscan Nights – Eric Burdon & The Animals
The Pusher – Steppenwolf
It’s Alright Ma – Roger McGuinn
Nights in White Satin – Moody Blues
Get Together – Youngbloods
A book, BFI Modern Classics: Easy Rider by Lee Hill documents the film’s production and significance.
Cast and crew filmographies
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Fans of this film, and there are many, will want to own this edition (the third release of this title on DVD). Though the new transfer is not flawless, most of the problem spots are due to the source, and not likely to be improved upon any time soon. Though it doesn’t look perfect, it’s quite likely this is as good as this film will ever look. It’s almost certainly as good as it will ever sound, with a great, subtle (for the most part) 5.1 track. The bonus CD, book and attractive packaging make this a definitive release of an important film.