Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Film Appreciation - Wasn't Born to Follow

Cody Hamman has Film Appreciation for the counterculture classic Easy Rider.

As an adult, I will admit that the idea of an eleven year old kid watching the 1969 film Easy Rider does seem kind of odd. But even when I was a child, I was already on a quest to watch as many classic films as I could get my eyes on, so the fact that I first watched Easy Rider when I was around eleven wasn't strange at all to me at the time. That just happened be when I, thanks to cable television, had the chance to watch this classic that I had already heard referenced and read about in movie magazines.

A film that served as the voice of a generation, or at least certain members of it, Easy Rider digs into the counterculture movement of the time through the story of long-haired motorcyclists Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (a character played by Peter Fonda and sometimes also referred to as Captain America), who have funded a cross-country road trip to Mardi Gras by smuggling in some cocaine from Mexico.

As you would expect, they smoke a fair amount of marijuana while they're taking this ride, and toward the end of the film even drop acid for an extended, rather nightmarish trip they share with prostitutes played by Toni Basil (yep, the one that sang "Mickey") and Karen Black. As they travel through middle America they face a lot of discrimination, and we're able to side with them in these situations because they're being looked down on just because they have longer hair and ride motorcycles - never mind that they're cocaine smugglers. They don't have the cocaine on them when they're getting dirty looks, getting tossed in jail cells, and even getting physically attacked because of their appearances.

Hippies of the time probably loved the sequence in which Billy and Wyatt pick up a hitchhiker (Luke Askew), who takes them to a commune where the residents are planting crops in dry desert soil. The commune sequence goes on a bit long for my liking, but it is an interesting look at how some people were choosing to live in '69.

More my speed is the stretch of film where Billy and Wyatt are accompanied by alcoholic lawyer George Hanson, who helps them out of legal trouble in a small town. George is played by Jack Nicholson, whose career was just picking up steam at the time. Nicholson is my favorite thing about the entire movie, he livens it up with his presence and provides what I find to be the most memorable performance. When George takes a sip of his Jim Beam, he has one hell of a vocal and physical reaction to it that must be seen to be appreciated.

It's because of the way that George reacts to his first sip of Jim Beam of the day that Easy Rider was on the TV during an event that changed my life in 1996. I had recorded the film from cable to VHS and wanted to show Nicholson's performance of that moment to my mom. Just when those few seconds had come to an end, the phone rang and my mom took the call that ultimately (and rightfully) ended my parents' marriage. Easy Rider kept on playing like nothing had happened, but my homelife was going to change in a major way.

That phone call is the main thing I'll always think of when I watch Easy Rider, but I have a more pleasant late '90s memory associated with the film as well. The movie was airing on cable again one night when my brother and a friend were hanging out in the house, and this friend cracked up when the song "Don't Bogart Me" by Fraternity of Man started playing on the soundtrack, with lyrics including "Don't bogart that joint, my friend, pass it over to me." The guy enjoyed the song so much, I got my VHS copy of the movie out to play it over for him a couple times.

One of the many things that made Easy Rider unique at the time of its release is the fact that it doesn't have an original musical score. It's scored with songs from popular bands of the time; Steppenwolf, The Byrds, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, Roger McGuinn doing a Bob Dylan cover, etc. The bands got $1000 for each song, and that soundtrack probably helped the movie earn a lot of money. Thirty years later, I bought a copy of the soundtrack.

In addition to co-starring, Hopper also directed the film, and because it was largely improvised he also had a writing credit with Fonda and screenwriter Terry Southern. Apparently there was some debate over whether or not Southern had written enough to deserve credit, but Southern maintained that he had.

An independent production, Easy Rider was made for a budget of around $400,000. Although Hopper was initially aiming for a cut in the range of 220 minutes (and there have been claims that it could have been even longer), the film ended up being whittled down to a more tolerable running time of 95 minutes. Unfortunately, all those minutes of scenes that were cut were completely lost, so they can't even be included as special features on a home video release.

Columbia Pictures picked the film up for distribution and found that they had a massive hit on their hands. Members of the counterculture turned out to see people like them represented on the big screen, people who were curious to know what the hippies were up to also checked it out, and the movie ended up making around $60 million worldwide. This film became so popular that it even convinced George Lazenby, who played James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service this same year, to bail on the role of Bond because it looked like the days of people caring about a suit-wearing government agent were over.

Although I wasn't born until the '80s, I was fascinated by the '60s and '70s growing up. I loved to hear stories from those decades, to watch films from those decades (or set in them), to listen to the music of those days. Easy Rider played right into my interests when I was eleven years old, so I watched the movie repeatedly during my adolescence, even though it might have seemed weird for me to do so. I can't really speak to the impact it had when it came out in '69, I wasn't there for it, but it was a part of some interesting times in my life.

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