In the late 1960s, a new breed of frontiersmen staked a claim on the American Southwest. Gliding across the open roads on their “California Choppers,” Wyatt (Peter Fonda), sporting a black-leather racing suit with the American flag emblazoned across it, and his buckskin-wearing sidekick, Billy (Dennis Hopper), ease south on the highway. Traveling from Los Angeles, the two are on a lucrative mission to Mexico to score cocaine.
Back in L.A., Wyatt and Billy meet up with their connection, an anonymous dandy (Phil Spector) who pays them an abundance of cash. Relieved to be free of the cocaine and have the money in hand, Wyatt and Billy hit the road again, setting out on their own trip through the Southwest toward Louisiana in hopes of making it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. The pair goes at its own pace, soaking up the scenery and camping along the highway because they cannot seem to find a motel that will cater to what conservatives call “hippies.” With the wind in their hair, music in their ears and the sun all around, the young men meet a host of characters along the way, including a wise hitchhiker (Luke Askew); George (Jack Nicholson), a lawyer with a drinking problem; two prostitutes, Mary (Toni Basil) and Karen (Karen Black), and a slew of unfriendly authorities who would rather see them off the road permanently.
After taking part in a series of youth-oriented, exploitation films in the late 1960s, Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson together explored an idea about some of the stories they had heard about bikers and hippies being hassled across the United States. They also yearned to make a more realistic representation of the hippie movement rather than the often negative Hollywood treatment of this counterculture. Fonda’s friend, writer Terry Southern, came on board, and the beginnings of the seminal, American classic Easy Rider (1969) were underway. With Hopper as director, the group went to producers for money to quickly fly to New Orleans and capture Mardi Gras celebrations. After spending a chaotic period with friends and their 16mm cameras, Hopper gathered some useful footage that later ended up in the film but opted to get back to Los Angeles to prepare an actual screenplay and hire a real crew.
Months later, Easy Rider makers went on location, this time with a screenplay and a crew that included director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, ASC (Five Easy Pieces, New York, New York). Kovacs, recommended by Nicholson, who had worked with him on previous exploitation titles, was hesitant to take on another “cycle” project, but Hopper managed to convince him. Both men envisioned a naturalistic look for Easy Rider, one that captured the natural beauty of the roadside locations without the use of much artificial light. Kovacs was an artist who could work well with the film’s fast pace and be flexible planning and staging shots. For the low-budget project, Kovacs famously re-fashioned a Chevy Impala convertible, laying down plywood planks to mount his camera. With this rig, Kovacs photographed the film’s many complicated and now famous road shots, working closely with Hopper to choreograph what both men refer to as a visual “ballet.” Kovacs’ innovative work on this project brought him much attention, and he went on to a storied career, including earning the ASC’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
For its 40th anniversary, Easy Rider has spun onto Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, making an impressive high-def debut. The image transfer is alive with color and natural film grain. There is uniformly excellent contrast, even in difficult, low-light sequences. Kovacs’ images are sharply detailed, with solid, deep blacks balancing out the vibrant colors. The film has never looked so bold and clean on home screens. The film-like vitality never feels digitally altered. The 5.1 True HD audio features the film’s memorable music score and amps up the surround tracks in all the right places.
Sure to please longstanding fans and newcomers alike, Sony’s Blu-ray presentation also includes the excellent 65-minute documentary Shaking The Cage from the 1999 DVD presentation. Presented in standard definition, this absorbing documentary features Fonda, Hopper, Black, Kovacs and others reminiscing about the freewheeling nature of the production and the film’s lasting impact. Included, too, are the BD-Live feature; Movie IQ, which flashes on-screen trivia throughout the film’s playback, and a handful of trailers for recent Sony Blu-rays. The disc comes housed in a book-like package that features 35 pages of photographs and production information.
While it is a shame some newly produced supplements were not included here, the striking new transfer of this landmark film, one that helped define the American Film New Wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s, is reason enough to add this to any serious home collection. Hopper’s unique vision of a controversial time in American culture, seen through the eyes of gifted cinematographer Kovacs, burns on into the digital age. It continues to entertain, provoke and remind viewers, if for only 95 minutes, they were all born to be wild.