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Easy Rider: 35th Anniversary Edition

Although it tends to lose its way now and then in a drug-induced stupor, and at other times is far too enigmatic for its own good, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper's 1969 Easy Rider marks the birth of American independent film, and it's an insightful look at the quirks and contradictions of the 1960s American counterculture. The film chronicles the episodic journey of Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), who travel from Los Angeles to Mardi Gras after a big drug score but perhaps fail to accept all of the lessons that the journey has to offer. Many of the set pieces are notably ironic — for example, even though Wyatt and Billy are long-haired, dope-smoking social dropouts, both are willing to accept the hospitality of strangers and offer it as well, as seen in their encounters with other dropouts such as a homesteading family and a hippie commune (both of whom commence meals with an all-American prayer), and in their partial journey with an alcoholic ACLU lawyer (a freewheelin', funny Jack Nicholson), who understands the nature of individuality more than they do. In contrast, the mainstream Americans they come across — those most willing to wave the flag and die for their country's freedoms — only have spite and malice for the nonconformist bikers, who ask nothing of the world but to live free and let others do likewise. But when the duo's pastoral odyssey returns to the city, they pick up a pair of hookers in a New Orleans whorehouse and drop acid. After the all-night party, the hyperactive Billy, loaded with his drug-money, suddenly sounds like the classic American dreamer — "We can retire to Florida!" he says. But the more thoughtful Wyatt simply replies "We blew it" — which, if not exactly clear, is still something to chew on when the film's over. Largely improvised by the cast and crew, Easy Rider was the first real "indie" film released by a major studio (the total budget was $340,000) as well as the first to ever use a popular-music soundtrack rather than the traditional score, featuring cuts from Steppenwolf, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, and others. Also starring Karen Black, Toni Basil, and record producer Phil Spector in a brief appearance. Cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs. Columbia TriStar's "35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition" of Easy Rider is essentially a re-packaging of their original 1999 release, with the same anamorphic transfer, from a source-print that is very good, although it does reveal some minor collateral wear, while audio is available in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Supplements include the 65-min. documentary "Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage," which largely consists of comments and recollections from Fonda, Hopper, Black, co-writer Terry Southern, and others. It's an entertaining and illuminative visit with the makers of this landmark film 30 years after its release. Also included is a subdued commentary track from director/co-writer/star Hopper, who offers notable details and occasional silence. New with this release is the BFI Modern Classics booklet on Easy Rider by Lee Hill (80 pages), which is valuable reading for students of New Hollywood filmmaking. And an enclosed CD includes eight songs from the motion picture soundtrack. Dual-disc slimline keep-case and booklet in paperboard slipcase.
—JJB



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