Billy and his friend Wyatt (aka Captain America) should have known better. Their drug-financed motorbike odyssey through the backroads of the real America in EASY RIDER begins with the sinister clue that their drugs are being carefully approved by Phil Spector at an airport.
As the ‘connection’, Spector looks surprisingly clean-cut; fresh-faced and modishly-capped, he resembles a hybrid of Mike Nesmith and Davey Jones of the Monkees, whose band by sheer coincidence was the means for Bert Schneider of BBS to finance the $365,000 or so that EASY RIDER cost to make. It’s ironic that such a genuinely counter-culture toned film was financed by the type of product that the film aims to be against: soulless pre-fabricated corporate selling –out. And yet, Rafelson’s hyper-kinetic work shaping the Monkees’ TV TV show has a string influence on the irreverence of the early BBS movies. His first film for BBS, HEAD, starred the Monkees aping (pardon the pun) their manufactured image as constructed Beatles clones, throwing them as puppets through a variety of film genres, joyously culminating in a dive off a bridge into the water to the gorgeously trippy tune of The Porpoise Song.
Dennis Hooper as co-writer/director of EASY RIDER wanted to get away from the saturated colours and shallow pop imagery of TV sitcoms and beach blanket Funicello/Avalon movies with his directorial debut and yet on Bluray certainly the colours and the 60s style are readily identifiable from the period and beautifully vivid. The clothing fabrics, the red in Fonda (Wyatt’s) motorcycle helmet, and the New Orleans sequences all burst with colour. Speaking of such bursting, after forty-four minutes of their initial meandering, including stopping off at a disturbingly Manson-esque commune featuring an even more disturbingly awful mime-troupe, the boys wake up in a town drunk-tank to find themselves Jack Nicholson as a cell-mate.
At this point in his career, Nicholson had been working as an actor for Roger Corman since 1959 and after various projects hadn’t caught fire for him, he was reconciled to maybe being behind the camera as writer/director. His extended cameo here with his soon-to-be-familiar lazy devilish grin, rumpled charm and eccentric elbow-wing pumping ‘Nick nick nick!’ booze propulsion on taking a swig is a winning boost for the film. In the campfire scene, he talks with authority about Venesian visitors (No mean feat considering the director of Photography Lazlo Kovacs said he was stoned throughout the whole speech). Hopper takes this in, channelling a befuddled state that almost looks like a rehearsal for his stoner photographer unwilling to ‘go to the moon with fractions’ in APOCALYPSE NOW. He further challenges Billy’s loose hippy philosophy by warning him about the redneck’s fear of change, and to compound the lesson is beaten to death by a bunch of them during the night.
Billy and Wyatt subsequently team up with two hookers and enjoy a genuinely-hallucinogenic (for all four actors including Karen Black and Toni Basil) tour of New Orleans. These scenes were the first ones filmed, the studio’s test of Hopper’s ability to helm a film. (They gave him $40,000 and told him that he could continue with the movie if he brought back usable competently-shot footage) It’s uncomfortable to watch Fonda weeping vulnerably, entwined around a cemetery statue. In his acid-fuelled state, Fonda was in reality role-playing a plea for his mother to explain why she 'copped out' on him, She tragically committed suicide when he was just ten years old. This scene has the same prurient and uncomfortable fascination as Sheen's real-life drunk scene in the opening of APOCALYPSE NOW. Both are artists willing to bare their souls on camera, exposing genuine pain in pursuit of some catharsis.
As with all highs, the road-trip must eventually come to an end when Billy and Wyatt are approached by a truck containing two narcoleptically-bad redneck (or in the case of one goitre-neck) actors. Choosing not to invite them into the woods for a greased-up game of leap-frog like Ned Beatty in the same era’s DELIVERANCE, the hill-billies opt for blowing them away in a jarringly-edited drive-by ending.
Seeing the film as a younger fan, I used to be distracted by Fonda’s introverted manner, thinking it was indicative of a low-drive, awkward performer, but towards the end of the film when he famously remarks the enigmatic line “We blew it”, I appreciate his choices much more. Whilst one can read-in that the character is talking about the failure of his generation’s promise, in a later interview Fonda claimed that he insisted on removing a talky subsequent explanation written by Hopper. Like Rutger Hauer who did the same on a greater scale later when filming THE HITCHER, Fonda is a wise enough screen actor to know the value of what is left unsaid.
Although it could be argued Hopper somewhat blew his freedom with THE LAST MOVIE, here is a counter-culture classic entirely to be proud of, nailing the anxieties of the young and the fear of the establishment old.
In the 1995 documentary 'Shaking The Cage', Hopper defined an 'Easy Rider' as a man who makes his living from a prostitute, not by pimping her out as such but still by her support of him financially.
Fonda revealed that many of the daily expenses during the shoot were financed on his Diner's Club credit card - an ironic use of the establishment for the film-makers' own ends.