Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ballad of Easy Rider

It was 45 years ago this month that Easy Rider hit the screens and took in $40 million by the end of the year.  Not bad for a counterculture movie financed largely out of Bert Schneider's and Peter Fonda's pockets and shot on the road with plenty of drugs along the way.

This visceral feel struck home with viewers and is why the film continues to make capture audiences.  Fonda had always loved motorbikes.  He had teamed up with Bruce Dern and Nancy Sinatra in The Wild Angels and experimented with LSD in The Trip, but he wanted something more than just an acid trip in Easy Rider.  He approached Dennis Hopper saying he had a vision of two bikers riding across John Ford's West like in The Searchers.  They recruited Jack Nicholson to join the ride, who to this point had been little more than a Hollywood screenwriter.

Kalem Aftab caught up to Fonda at a BFI retrospective of Dennis Hopper.  Sad to read that the two had a falling out over the writing credits for the movie and were never able to repair their friendship.  Fonda was expressly barred from attending Hopper's funeral in 2010.  Odd that Hopper should take such offense, especially since he was given top billing as director, but who knows what animus lay at the heart of this dispute.

The film launched Nicholson's acting career.  Fonda and Hopper had initially approached Rip Torn to play the third part, but he had taken offense to the way Hopper sized up the South and the part was given to Nicholson.  Jack would go on to star in classic 70s films like Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge and Chinatown over the next five years.  Not bad for a guy who had a relatively minor role in the film as an ACLU lawyer and local drunk.  He helped spring Wyatt and Billy from jail.  He joined the ride to New Orleans but meets his end by a campfire on the way, savagely beaten by local thugs.

The Mardi Gras scene is probably the most memorable, as the two meet up with Karen Black and Toni Basil, enjoying an acid trip in a local cemetery that allowed Hopper to experiment a bit with the film, which Fonda jokingly referred to as "an endless parade of shit."  But, somehow it worked.

Fonda and Hopper treat the South as a place still rooted in Jim Crow hatred toward outsiders, in sharp contrast to the hippie commune they had visited earlier in New Mexico.  There was no room for hippies in the Deep South and the film comes to an abrupt and violent end in Florida where the two hoped to retire with their drug money.

When watching this film today it seems like a whole other era, yet strangely intimate.  The Soundtrack doesn't hurt either.  Supposedly, the characters of Wyatt and Billy were loosely based on Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, but you get the sense they pretty much played themselves.  McGuinn and Dylan did team up to write Ballad of Easy Rider for the movie.

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