This week marks the 50th Anniversary of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s classic “Easy Rider” And today, we’re joined once more, by our friend Jimmy Ray Flynn! An artist and writer, who originally hails from the GREAT city of Boston, where the three most important things in people’s lives are, Sports, Politics and Revenge. Jimmy is this week’s special guest blogger, so please join us in welcoming him back to SMS! We’re sure you will enjoy his unique perspective and insightful review of this great American classic!
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Summer. 1969. A little movie titled Easy Rider somehow found it’s way to the silver screen. And so 50 years ago film history was made. A classic had been born. I was 16 the first time I saw it sitting in a Boston theater. A place called The Nickelodeon. I knew from the get go this flick was something special. It spoke to me.
The main characters as portrayed by Peter Fonda (“Wyatt aka Captain America”) Dennis Hopper (“Billy”) and Jack Nicholson (“George Hanson”) told the story about what was happening in our country at the time. Woodstock was only a heartbeat away. Coming up fast in a demonic flash was Manson and later that December The Stones at Altamont. The peace and love fests so omnipresent during much of the turbulent 60’s were nearing an end. Pop counter culture was on the ropes.
No matter, Easy Rider was an instant hit with audiences. An American odyssey, a contemporary western of sorts, complete with a kickass rock soundtrack set against a beautiful southwest backdrop. Our anti-heroes Wyatt and Billy were long haired bikers, free spirits, flush with cash from a recent drug deal, who took to the vast open road in an attempt to “Find America”. Little did they know.
Easy Rider, which was written by Peter Fonda, Terry Southern and the MIGHTY Dennis Hopper, who also directed, begins with Wyatt and Billy scoring cocaine from a dealer played by music icon Phil Spector. After carefully loading their cash bounty into the gas tank of Wyatt’s pimped out chopper they head off from LA to New Orleans and Mardi Gras. Along the way, they encounter an assortment of characters and situations that are the essence of a 60’s road trip. Which reminds me, does anyone even hitchhike anymore?
It’s not long before Wyatt and Billy are arrested for ‘parading without a permit’ and locked up. It’s here where we meet the guy who steals the movie, in my humble opinion, George Hanson. As portrayed by the GREAT Jack Nicholson, George is the heart and soul of Easy Rider. A local ACLU lawyer, with a bit of a drinking problem, who is instrumental in getting his cell mates out of the clink. He soon grabs his helmet and is off to Mardi Gras with his new buddies. From the moment he first appears on screen, Nicholson doesn’t miss a beat. The camera loves him. And so do we.
For the record my article is not a review of the movie as that’s been done previously and is well documented elsewhere. I’m attempting to share my thoughts on Easy Rider and to focus on a few things. Most notably the performance of Jack Nicholson and the unique soundtrack.
As for Jack, he was not the first choice for the role of George. Initially, the late Rip Torn was slated to play the part, however, due to a falling out with Dennis Hopper it didn’t happen. When the movie began shooting, an actor named Jack Starrett was playing George until one day when producer Bert Schneider called Hopper into his office. It went something like this:
BS: “I haven’t asked you to do anything but I want you to use Jack Nicholson”
DH: “But Nicholson isn’t right for the part, Starrett is”
BS: “Right or wrong I want you to use Jack”
DH “Okay, Bert, but you’re fucking up my movie!”
The rest is history. Jack Nicholson came onboard to play George Hanson working for union scale at 392.00 bucks a week. He was absolutely BRILLIANT. His scenes with Hopper and Fonda sitting around campfires smoking grass while riffing on life are timeless.
Not surprisingly, in 1970 he was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category. Jack Nicholson had arrived.
The soundtrack to Easy Rider is significant for a number of reasons. It was one of the first movies to use music that was just playing on the radio. It wasn’t scored like most films were at the time. Dennis Hopper called it “found music”. Watching the film it’s as if the music is collaged to the visuals happening on screen and it works beautifully.
Tracks by Steppenwolf “The Pusher” and “Born to be Wild” set the proper tone for the film’s opening.
Something I discovered in doing research for this article, is a story told by Peter Fonda of how Crosby, Stills and Nash were approached to do the score for Easy Rider but after seeing a cut of the film which included the music, they declined. It was apparent to them what was on screen worked. They knew well enough to leave it alone. Wise decision.
Along with Steppenwolf on the soundtrack were The Band, Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Byrds, The Electric Prunes, The Holy Modal Rounders, Fraternity of Man and Roger McGuinn who composed the track “Ballad of Easy Rider” (with an uncredited assist from Bob Dylan) Seems Dylan was involved early on in the writing of the song, after seeing a cut of the film he didn’t dig the ending and asked to have his name removed. McGuinn used some of what Dylan had written (“The river flows, it flows to the sea. Wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be. Flow, river, flow…”) incorporating his lyrics into the tune which rolled over the end credits.
Easy Rider was a Labor of LOVE. It’s important to mention some of the artists whose contributions helped bring it to fruition. Among them the GREAT Cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs, Producers Bert Schneider and Bill Hayward, Editor Donn Cambern, Production Manager Paul Lewis, Still Photographer Peter Sorel and Actors Luke Askew, Warren Finnerty, Luana Anders, Sabrina Scharf, Robert Walker, Jr., Toni Basil and Karen Black.
Looking back, this film had a major impact on how movies were made and subsequently distributed. The independent spirit was alive and well. As we moved into the seventies, Easy Rider was clearly an inspiration for a whole new generation of artists. Filmmakers. One of my favorite movies of all time is Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) clearly influenced by the success of Easy Rider. If you’ve never seen it take a look. A deeply personal film by Scorsese which features an electrifying performance by a young Robert DeNiro. The soundtrack on that film is also incredible. Found music.
I believe Dennis Hopper to be a genius rebel of an artist. Although he may be gone, thankfully, his work lives on.
Easy Rider. 50 years and counting.
SMS SEZ: If you’re interested in seeing and hearing more from Jimmy Ray Flynn, and we highly recommend that you do, here’s a link to his incredible Instagram page