Easy Rider: Trippin' Counterculture

“There goes easy rider, riding down the highway of desire,” Jimi Hendrix sings in Ezy Ryder, his iconic tune inspired by and giving tribute to Easy Rider, the 1969 Dennis Hopper film which became a landmark of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s in the US, and that is a single line that perhaps captures the essence of a film dealing with many subjects and ideas, and a certain quest for freedom that an entire generation sought in Rock N’ Roll, drugs and rebelliousness. Peter Fonda, co-writer and star of the film, says, “in 1968, we had our own music, art, language, and clothing, but we didn’t have our own movie.” Easy Rider was THE movie to state what an entire generation believed in, something that was attempted before in Fonda’s own The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967); in Easy Rider, it was achieved.

Easy Rider stars Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda as two motorcyclists smuggling drugs into Mexico, receiving payment and then heading back to America, aiming to reach New Orleans for the famous Mardi Gras festival. Along the way, they stop at different places and meet different people, and their interactions show the varied and even conflicted mentalities of 1960’s America. An old farmer with a young wife and a lot of children creating a community of their own that is as old-fashioned as they come, never portrayed negatively or criticizingly, but merely displayed as still present; a commune of hippies attempting to live off the land where LSD is a tool for escaping poor reality and notions of free love are widely spread; a conservative southern village where the duo get arrested for “parading without a permit” and meet an alcoholic lawyer in prison where he is treated as a king and a regular; in the next town, as the duo with their new friend, the lawyer, have a meal, local men throw insults their way in an attempt to provoke them into a fight, while a bunch of young girls take a better, more romanticized outlook to the three men; through their trip across the country, they were trying to find America, but it was no longer there, what remained was scattered and radically diverse that it makes one wonder if it was ever there in the first place.

In the beginning of the film, just before embarking on their trip, Peter Fonda’s character looks at his watch, takes it off and throws it off on the ground before speeding off to the ageless Steppenwolf tune “Born to Be Wild”; where they are going, time has no place nor meaning, they live in the moment and their moments are timeless. These two men, and the entire movement they represented, sought nothing more than music and drug-induced trips, something that required the world to be peaceful and understanding for them to fully enjoy it. Easy Rider paints its two protagonist not as heroes but as victims, the outcasts, the misjudged, the misunderstood, two boys who never grew up and who only want to ride their pretty motorcycles and smoke marijuana, but when they do exactly that, they get attacked, sometimes even physically, and eventually, mortally so. Easy Rider is very much a product of its generation, and a perfect turning point between the idealistic 60s and the brutally raw 70s, a turning point that is perhaps as monumental as the Altamont Freeway Concert the following year in the sense that it woke up a generation of daydreamers from a perfectionist haze that they were swimming in; sure, we love each other, but the world still hates.

This being an independent film, and with a budget of only 400k dollars, it has none of that fancy camerawork that came with the Golden Age of Hollywood, for New Hollywood, inspired by the new waves of filmmaking all around the world, sought to detach itself from all that preceded Easy Rider’s cinematography is as raw and psychedelic as its subject matter; shot outside with natural lighting, and with linking shots that are trippy and hazy, and an entire sequence towards the end where the two men are on LSD that hypnotizes and stuns. Music is another important aspect of the film, so important in fact that an additional one million dollars was spent just to license all the music used in the film, and by God, is there great music. Steppenwolf, the Band, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Electric Prunes...If all of those names don’t give you a sense of just how majestic Easy Rider’s soundtrack is, dig this: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were fired from the film!

As the two men speed off once again, this time to Bob Dylan’s It’s Alright, Ma (Roger McGuinn’s cover), its prophetical lyrics are indeed carried out: private reasons great or small can be seen in the eyes of those that call to make all that should be killed to crawl while others say don't hate nothing at all except hatred. 


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