Previously available in 'America Lost and Found: The BBS Story', a seven-disc set the Criterion Collection released in 2010 that was originally conceived of and put together by Sony (which released the original BBS films theatrically), but then they got cold feet and Criterion took over and added a few flourishes, 'Easy Rider' is now available as a standalone release. The audio and supplements portions are taken from Drew Taylor's review.
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 might not actually possess.
More so than the leads, '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 Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'East Rider' (#545 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is "Easy Rider: Wild at Heart," an essay by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz.
From the liner notes, "Supervised by director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, this new high-definition transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Northlight 2 Scanner from the original camera negative and the black-and-white separation masters."
Presented with a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the picture looks fantastic. The opening shot reveals a variety of vibrant hues, from the blue sky to the brown on the La Contenta Bar building and a little boy's orange outfit. Colors remain strong throughout as seen with the American flag's red, white, and blue on Wyatt’s bike and gear and the red, yellow, and orange flames on Billy's bike. Flesh tones are accurate and consistent. Blacks are inky and contribute to the solid contrast.
Fine texture details are captured, seen in the clothing, the objects in the Mexican junkyard, and the walls of the jail cell where George is introduced. There's a natural film grain that increases when the sky dominates the frame and during the scenes shot at dusk. Surprisingly, the grain doesn't increase during the nighttime campfire scenes.
The Mardi Gras sequence was shot on 16mm and begins at night. The image loses clarity and depth, colors become duller, blacks crush, and grain intensifes. All these aspects improve during the daytime shots. They didn't mind when water got on the lens or using material that appeared on the tail end of a magazine when the color distorted because they fit the mood of the scene.
Also from the liner notes, "The soundtracks were remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic 3-track masters and multitrack music masters under the supervision of director Dennis Hopper."
'Easy Rider' has a number of options – English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, and English Dolby Digital 1.0. The mono track was the original for the film, and it sounds sturdy and reliable, but the 5.1 mix isn’t the disaster that it could have been (remember that 'Jaws' mix from a few years ago?) It’s a toss up between which one you should go with – if you want purity, hit up the mono track, if you want your sound system to thump (especially during the rock songs), hit up the 5.1. They're both dynamic and grand.
While I'd recommend buying 'America Lost and Found: The BBS Story' if it's in your budget, 'Easy Rider' is worth adding to your collection because it presents a great historical snapshot of America and Hollywood as both were in a state of flux in the late '60s. Criterion did a great job with the high-def presentation and the supplemental material.