[Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.]
Peter Fonda was already an icon of the counterculture when he suited up in black leather and a star-spangled helmet, mounted a Harley-Davidson chopper, tossed his watch to the desert floor and drove off with a shaggy Dennis Hopper in search of America.
The film was Easy Rider, an independent film produced by Fonda, directed by Hopper, largely scripted by cult author Terry Southern and shot on the road. The low-budget production became a countercultural shot across the bow of an out-of-touch Hollywood system. From the opening blast of the biker anthem “Born to Be Wild” to the grim disillusion of the climax, it tapped into the pulse of American youth, became a runaway hit and, for better or worse, was the defining film of a generation.
Fonda’s Wyatt and Hopper’s Billy set off from Mexico to Mardi Gras on their way to find their paradise in Key West. Along the way they pick up hitchhikers, meet salt-of-the-earth folks and idealistic hippies in a dusty desert commune, clash with bigots and intolerant rednecks, and lose their way on a bad acid trip in New Orleans.
Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs captures it with a glorious spontaneity and gives the traveling scenes a liberating sense of flight across the two-lane blacktops that wind from the Western desert to the lush backwoods of the deep South. The defining soundtrack of the Band, the Birds, Jimi Hendrix and others energizes the journey.
But Easy Rider is an uneasy portrait of the late ’60s right from the opening, when the two bikers launch their idealistic odyssey with a cocaine deal. Billy is skittish, reflexively suspicious of strangers and impatient to get going. Wyatt, the thoughtful, introspective one, is open to the warmth and generosity they find along the way but unable to really connect. “I’m hip about time, but I just gotta go,” is his answer to an invitation to settle down. The freedom of the road is also an escape.
The little road movie of hippie bikers was an odyssey for the era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, of Vietnam and protest marches, of idealism and cynicism stirred by the volatile culture clash of the late ’60s. As such, Easy Rider is both a celebration and an epitaph. And almost 40 years later, this cinematic time capsule still works on both counts.