Written and directed by its stars, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper respectively, this iconic piece of counterculture lit the touch paper for a generation of New Hollywood cinema. While it may lack the contextual impact of its release, Easy Rider’s cultural and historical significance, as well as its quality, grants it a legendary status.
On the surface, the film is a classic road movie. The central narrative contains all the conventions of a simple genre piece, following two bikers, Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), who travel through America’s South.
With leather jackets, untamed hair and a carefree attitude, these two friends were the epitome of cool in their generation in the late sixties. The chemistry they display in their differing performances as the easy-going Wyatt and the short-fused, paranoia-suffering Billy are impressive and integral to the narrative.
Typically of the genre, they meet a variety of characters along the way. From the free love commune to the travelling theatre troop, the people they meet promote themes of the counterculture lifestyle. Most memorable of all is the alcoholic lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). The legendary actor is extremely confident in the role, despite appearing so early in his career, he brings the same eccentricity that granted him acclaim.
This narrative approach with many sub-plots is conventional; however, it’s the more subtle areas where its creators overtly subvert the classic cinema conventions. The fragmented editing, innovative jump cuts break Hollywood conventions, anchoring to the sentiment as a piece of counterculture. Similarly, the cinematography, constructed of glorious long shots of America’s southern landscapes. Vast mountainous regions, arid desert plains and small country towns are captured with nostalgia-tinted lens – promoting the land the country was built on. Additionally there’s an obvious use of handheld camera, with emphasised movement and blinding lens flare.
Naturally the most popular musicians of the era, also part of the counterculture themselves, supply the film with a fantastic soundtrack. Boasting artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Steppenwolf, their legendary tracks are reflective of the narrative’s social commentary and comfortably anchor themselves to the film.
Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut is a defining piece of cinema. Stunning performances, innovative style and a glorious soundtrack stake its claim as the best road movie I’ve seen.