Director: Dennis Hopper
Writer: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson
Dennis Hopper’s influence independent film Easy Rider captures the counterculture of the 1960s, set against the backdrop of a society that was filled with riots, civil unrest, and . Made with an incredibly low budget, the story follows two bikers who are travelling across southern America. The film was written by Peter Fonda, Terry Southern, and Dennis Hopper, who also directed the film. Fonda and Hopper both star in the film as the two bikers travelling to Mardi Gras festival. Originally the film was reported to be around four hours long, with scenes stretching out, backed by songs. Eventually the film was cut down to a tight ninety-five minutes, and the film is seen as one of the major releases of the New Hollywood era, which was influenced by international cinema and experimental films.
The plot is very loose, mainly focusing on Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) travelling across America, the different people they meet, and the different ways people live. There’s a free-flowing feel to everything as the characters meander along their journey to the festival. They meet people from different backgrounds, living varied lives. It’s a mesmerising journey and even though not much really happens it’s still engaging and easy to watch. The soundtrack is fantastic, featuring Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, and an original song, ‘Ballard of Easy Rider’. With that song Bob Dylan wrote the first verse and then it was passed of to The Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn to finish up, and the song features over the closing moments of the film. After Dylan saw the film, he demanded that his name was removed from the credits of the film and any release of the song.
Everything about the film is very naturalistic and free flowing, feeling very authentic. Both Hopper and Fonda give great and very different performances. They work really well together on screen and you really get the sense that they are lifetime friends. Adding to the mix, over half way through the film, is Jack Nicholson who plays smalltown lawyer George Hanson. Nicholson steals every scene that he’s in and has the most memorable moments in the film. He deservedly was nominated for best supporting Oscar that year but lost out to Laurence Oliver. Everything about his performance is completely natural.
Throughout the film there are a lot of contrasting scenes, from a hippie commune that cuts straight into a parade through the city, a calm talk around the fire cutting to a violent attack. The different styles of life mixed together and happening at the same time. It almost captures a part of history, which is only added to by the use of locals in certain scenes rather than actors. There’s one scene in a café, where the sheriff and others are saying horrible things about the three main characters, which was improvised with the only direction was to be as horrible as possible. There’s also some strange and jarring scene transitions, where the screen flickers between the current and next scene before settling on the next one, it feels disorientating and the first time this happens it tells you perfectly that this film is a little bit different.
Easy Rider feels unique, even over fifty years later there’s nothing else really like it. It’s a little bit like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, while at the same time being it’s own thing. A mesmerising film with great characters and one hell of a shocking ending that comes out of nowhere.
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