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Despite Inspiring Some Forgettable Duds, 'Easy Rider' Transcends Its Era

3 Min Read

“Rainbow Bridge” never had a chance. It was ostensibly inspired by the 1969 movie “Easy Rider,” but the notion of somehow recapturing that pop-culture moment would prove to be an insurmountable task for countless directors and producers hoping to make their own version of a low-budget independent movie that turned into a $60 million franchise.

‘Easy Rider’ resonates across generations because it’s in essence not so much a period piece or even a protest, but a deeper look into the disconnect between what America believes itself to be and what it actually is.

“Easy Rider” could’ve been a muddle too. The plot? Two guys ride through the American South in search of whatever lurks over the horizon. Detours abound. Yet the movie felt more of its moment than anything Hollywood was manufacturing at the time. It mirrored how young America saw itself. And, no, it had nothing to do with “flower power” or “summer of love” bromides. “Easy Rider” resonates across generations because it’s in essence not so much a period piece or even a protest, but a deeper look into the disconnect between what America believes itself to be and what it actually is. Wander off into the margins of the mainstream, it suggests, and the Land of the Free will turn on you.

Subtext aside, “Easy Rider” can come off as a bit haphazard, a wooly period piece about a generation in a wilderness of possibility and violence. Loosely conceived as a contemporary Western, with Dennis Hopper (Billy) and Peter Fonda (Wyatt) as the ’60s answer to Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp, “Easy Rider” was essentially an unscripted road movie. In lieu of dialogue by the taciturn protagonists, its rock soundtrack narrated the journey. Astutely chosen songs by Jimi Hendrix, the Byrds, Steppenwolf and other notables ride shotgun with Billy and Wyatt. They score wads of cash in a drug deal and then head out to Mardi Gras in New Orleans because why not? (Side note: The fat-cat drug-buyer is played by Phil Spector, the wall-of-sound producer who made all those teen symphonies such as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” in the early ‘60s.) Along the way, the bikers mingle with everyone from free-love hippies at a commune to rednecks in a diner, but they prefer to keep moving.

The shaggy bikers aren’t really villains or heroes. They run counter not only to Richard Nixon’s law-and-order America but to the counterculture itself.

Fonda initially financed much of the movie himself and Hopper directed, bypassing the corporate Hollywood studios that likely wouldn’t have green-lighted such an ill-defined project anyway. Even after heavy editing cut more than four hours of Hopper’s first version of the film to a relatively concise 95 minutes, it can feel long and meandering. The actors don’t say much, and the scenes often unfold with casual, documentary-like pacing. The shaggy bikers aren’t really villains or heroes. They run counter not only to Richard Nixon’s law-and-order America but to the counterculture itself. Sure, Wyatt and Billy drop acid and smoke a lot of weed. They even persuade a Southern lawyer, brilliantly played by Jack Nicholson, to inhale. But they are part of no one’s scene, they belong to no one’s community.

Their charge toward freedom comes up short. “We blew it,” Wyatt tells Billy at one point. It’s a chilling if cryptic admission. It surfaces the anxiety and disappointment that lurk beneath their sun-dappled journey across America’s back roads.

As the bikers pull up to the small-town diner where their fate will take a disastrous turn, Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” ushers them to the door. “I got my own world to live through,” Hendrix declares, an outsider singing to all his peers who’ve been cast adrift, including Billy and Wyatt.

Hendrix was so taken by the movie that he in turn wrote a song inspired by it, “Ezy Rider.” On his final tour in 1970, Hendrix was feeling the weight of Wyatt’s words as he introduced the freshly recorded track at a show in Madison, Wis.: “I was trying to help us, but it just blew up in the end. …And that was only one-third of our life, you know, and we have to get blown up, and then we go on to something better, right? Definitely. If you don’t think that, you might as well die now. Oh, Lord, I’m dying.”

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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