With the increasing emergence during the 1950s and '60s of talented filmmakers from around the world telling new, unique stories to American audiences, much of the product churned out by the Hollywood studio system, such as 'Cleopatra' (1963), which nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, seemed stale in comparison. In reaction, a new business model was created, allowing directors more creative freedom to tell their stories in exchange for smaller budgets.
During what would later be dubbed the "New Hollywood" era, new artists emerged in the director's chair. One of those people was actor-turned-director Dennis Hopper, whose 'Easy Rider' became a landmark film due to its accurate counterculture portrayals and French New Wave influence, ultimately roaring off down the road to great box-office success. This in turn created more opportunities for filmmakers who would follow. The "New Hollywood" era came to an end in the late '70s with the blockbuster successes of Steven Spielberg's 'Jaws' and George Lucas' 'Star Wars'. Nowadays, 'Easy Rider' may seem dated if you can't appreciate it in context to the times it was released.
Our "heroes" Wyatt (Peter Fonda, who also co-wrote and produced) and Billy (Hopper) are motorcycling-riding, drug-dealing, long-haired hippies that, like many of their peers at the time, rebelled against what society imposed upon them and tried to make their own way in the world. However, as opposed to many of the caricatures Hollywood passed off on audiences for years, these characters came across as authentic.
After a drug deal in Mexico, they ride across the American Southwest, heading towards New Orleans at Billy's request. Along the way, the cast of characters they meet helps the audience better understand Wyatt and Billy as well the state of the country at the time. During the film's final act, while sitting around a campfire, Billy thinks they found the American Dream, while Wyatt disagrees, saying they "blew it." This point is reinforced the next day as they both pay a price for their outlaw ways.
'Easy Rider' is no different than the classic tragedies of literature, as Wyatt and Billy are punished for their transgressions of society's rules. Billy's iconic gesture, flipping the bird to a passerby mocking him, epitomizes his character and an idea many people still embrace today. The film also casts its eye on the generational divide and examines it. Early on, a hotel owner flips on the "No Vacancy" sign when the duo rides up on their bikes. Billy assumes it's because "they're scared," but attorney George Hansen (Jack Nicholson) points out, "They're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent to 'em." And that's freedom, which people would like to believe they have, but mihght not actually possess.
More so than the stars, 'Easy Rider' is well known for two breakthrough performances: Jack Nicholson, and famed cinematographer László Kovács. Nicholson is memorable in his brief role, as Hansen bridges the two worlds of the straights and the hippies with humor and insight. The work of Kovács and his team, paired with a brilliant soundtrack of then-current music, surely motivated a number of people to trek out on the open road to bask in the beauty he captured.
The video looks great with its 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer delivered at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. There's grain evident throughout but it never mars the image, although there is a great deal of it in the Mardi Gras sequence which was shot on 16mm. During this portion, all the video qualities are understandably diminished.
The colors are amazing. The red, white, and blue of the American flag pop off Wyatt’s bike and gear. The Southwestern countryside looks marvelous as the natural light constantly changes the hue of the majestic landscape. The blue of Fonda's eyes and of the sky reflecting off the choppers' chrome is vibrant. Flesh tones are accurate and consistent throughout. The images are sharp with well-rendered textures and details that contribute to the 3-D dimensionality.
The only thing at fault is the blacks, which are normally strong, but at times suffer from crush as some detail gets lost in them. Aside from the 16mm footage, I didn't notice any flaws.
While the Original Mono track is available for purists, the English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sounds great. Dialogue is clear as it comes out through the front center. There's good directionality as planes roar through the soundfield during a drug deal at an airport. Ambient effects in the rears augment though don't immerse. The elements are well balanced within a dynamic range that never gets too soft.
Music is an important element to telling the film's story and it dazzles throughout the surround system like a concert film as the first few notes of Steppenwolf's "The Pusher" play. The subwoofer makes its presence known with the next track "Born to be Wild," and adds oomph to the motorcycles.
'Easy Rider' presents a great historical snapshot of America and Hollywood as both were in a state of flux in the late '60s, and this Blu-ray accentuates that look back with very good technical aspects. I'm surprised a film of such importance didn't receive better supplements than the sparse offerings on this release. The studio has really dropped the ball in that area. However, 'Easy Rider' needs no bonus material to make the movie worth owning.