By the end of the 1960s, the Hollywood studio system was on its last legs and losing a generation of young moviegoers to television. In a bid to appeal to the rebellious youth culture of the era Columbia Pictures green lit a new outlaw biker film. The movie was produced by and starred Peter Fonda, the son of a Hollywood legend and an authentic biker movie idol following his turn as Heavenly Blues in The Wild Angels (1966). Fonda’s director and co-star for the new project was Dennis Hopper, a young veteran actor who’d established himself as a talented troublemaker alongside both John Wayne and James Dean. In the film the pair played a couple of bikers, Billy (Fonda) and Wyatt (Hopper). After cashing-out a big cocaine sale the two roar out of Los Angeles intent on getting to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. They befriend an ACLU lawyer named George (Jack Nicholson) who joins their journey. When it was released in 1969 Easy Rider grossed $60 million worldwide against a filming budget of $400, 000. It sparked a decade of unprecedented creative freedom for young filmmakers, giving the world cinema’s greatest era. The Belcourt’s latest repertory series Spirit of ’69 features a wild array of films from the dawn of New Hollywood, and it righteously kicks-off this weekend with Easy Rider.
At first glance Easy Rider is just another 1960s-era biker flick. What made it so different from all the other pictures about motorcycle misfits? The magic of Easy Rider is best understood through the lens of its most important predecessor: The Wild One, the 1953 film about a motorcycle gang terrorizing a small Midwestern town inaugurated the outlaw biker genre. And The Wild One stands tall among its imitators because its star, Marlon Brando, made his motorcycle gang leader, Johnny Stabler, into a three dimensional character. The film defined the leather-clad tropes of the motorcycle genre while taking itself seriously enough — on Brando’s broad shoulders — to pack so much dramatic wallop that it was banned in England until 1968. That was one year before the release of Easy Rider. Easy Rider is similarly special for its indelible acting performances, and just like The Wild One it also captures the authentic spirit of a contemporaneous subculture in revolt. There’s not much sex in Easy Rider, but the drugs and the rock ‘n’ roll are for real, and Easy Rider isn’t an elevation of the outlaw biker genre so much as a restoration of it.
Marlon Brando’s iconic look in The Wild One put both James Dean and Elvis Presley in sideburns. The poster of Brando in his biker regalia leaning on the handlebars of his Triumph Thunderbird 6T is still a best seller today. As with The Wild One, so many elements of Easy Rider have become iconic: Wyatt’s stars and stripes-painted gas tank, Billy’s handlebar mustache, George’s gold football helmet, Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” and cinematographer László Kovács’ eerie final shot of the film. The famous Easy Rider poster featuring Billy flying down the highway on his chopper, thrusting a middle finger at the camera is still a best seller today.
At the dawn of the 1970s Easy Rider helped an entire generation of young filmmakers show Hollywood that the kids were all right, and a decade of killer sharks, taxi drivers, Skywalkers, Italian Stallions, Corleones, deer hunters, raging bulls and dog-day afternoons followed. Easy Rider is a grail myth dressed-up as a motorcycle Western. By the end of the film Wyatt and Billy realize they’ll always be searching for the American Dream. So will we.
Easy Rider kicks off the Belcourt Theatre’s Spirit of ‘69 series with screenings June 7-9. Go to www.belcourt.org for times and tickets.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.
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