If one movie can evoke a whole era, this is it. It looks, feels and smells like the 60s inside out. What makes it even more striking is that it’s not an afterthought made by filmmakers decades later: you can sense that these guys were putting on film what they were experiencing at the time, probably unaware of how relevant their little bike flick would become. “Easy Rider” was written by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, with Hopper directing and both of them starring. Fonda is the flag-covered, quiet Captain America, while Hopper plays the long-haired Billy dude with the hat and the mustache. They’re both freewheeling hippies from California, and the film has them riding their bitchin’ chopper motorcycles all the way to New Orleans to catch Mardi Gras.
This is less a film than an experience. There’s not much of a plot, and no sign of conventional filmmaking. The editing is scattered, confusing and totally amazing. Most of the movie shows our two anti-heroes hitting the road, riding by the gorgeous landscapes of the United States. The filmmakers are obviously disgusted by the state of American society, but they still seem to adore the country. We get to see mountains, forests, lakes, deserts, industrial zones, small towns, scored with cool 60s tunes from bands like the Byrds, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and of course, Steppenwolf and their anthem “Born to Be Wild”. There’s also a whole lot of drugs, from cocaine to marijuana and LSD. Through that are three vignettes painting different sides of 60s America, as Billy and Captain America meet people during their journey. The way I see it, the movie is about how these two guys are looking for the American Dream, for what will bring them happiness. First, they give a ride to a hitch-hiker and take him to a commune where they crash for a while. There’s a whole lot of young men and women living side by side, growing their own food and listening to a guy who preaches the love of Jesus and each other. Billy and America enjoy this lifestyle, but it’s not quite what they’re looking for.
So they go on with their trip, which is suddenly stopped when they’re arrested for no real reason, except maybe because they have long hair. While in jail, they meet George Hanson, a drunken lawyer colorfully played by Jack Nicholson. He helps them get out and joins them, for a while at least. During that time, they once again are confronted by the “mainstream” when they stop to eat in a dinner. A cop and a few men tell them they’re animals and talk about roughing them up, while girls seem somehow fascinated by these rugged men. I find the explanation suggested for this very interesting. Hippies with their long hair represent freedom, real freedom, and that scares people who only think they’re free individuals. It’s really something I can believe: many are indeed put off to see people being uninhibited and partying, and it’s often because they’re jealous they don’t have the balls to do the same.
Captain America and Billy later stop at a whorehouse, where they pick up prostitutes and take them to the Mardi Gras free-for-all. They eventually drop acid in a cemetery, leading to a hallucinatory bad trip sequence which is even more stunningly edited than the rest of the movie. And then, like a lot of 60s movies, it ends tragically. Hopper and Fonda didn’t achieve to find the American Dream in returning to nature, in the intolerant mainstream nor in drugs. Like Nicholson says at one point, “What the hell happened to this country?”
“Easy Rider” is more than just a road movie: it’s a fascinating insider look at the hippie counterculture. It was made with little money, but it’s directed with a lot of energy and originality, and it still feels fresh after 30 years. It’s not really deep, as it’s mostly repeating hippie semi-profoundities, but it doesn’t matter. The pleasure of “Easy Rider” is less in what it believes in than in what it conveys: a true sense of freedom, so rare in the predictable movies made nowadays.