"Easy Rider"

Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda go back to a time when a kilo of good pot was a budgeted movie expense.

By Max Garrone
Published April 16, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

"Easy Rider"
Directed by Dennis Hopper
Starring Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Phil Spector
Columbia/Tristar anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Commentary by Dennis Hopper, making-of documentary "Shaking the Cage"

When Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda set out to make a western about hippies trekking across America on their motorcycles, they had no idea that their creation would become the signature film of the '60s. The DVD release of "Easy Rider" points out just how influential the movie was at the time, and the extras explore the outlaw magic that made it work.

Dennis Hopper plays Billy and Peter Fonda takes on the role of Wyatt, aka Captain America, for the allegorical voyage. Billy's hot to get to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras, but Wyatt runs at a slower, more contemplative pace; he's often seen finishing a joint and staring into the campfire. Several of the conversations, if not the entire movie, are about freedom. As a director, Hopper places the nonconformist main characters in an America populated by accepting cowboys and hippies. In the South, however, the bikers find xenophobic racists who chase down longhairs with shotguns. The film itself is somber in theme, but watching it today is still energizing: The filmmaking is raw and exciting -- the movie is often credited with driving the renaissance of American film in the '70s -- and the cast makes up a who's who of the '60s and '70s.

The fun part of watching the DVD after all this time is that you finally get to find out which parts of the film were driven by the script and acting, and which parts were real, or the result of happy accidents on location. According to the DVD extras, most of the film was really done on the spot, and most of the scenes in the movie played out as they happened to the actors themselves. This is confirmed in the extensive documentary "Shaking the Cage," which features most of the major players. Fonda is by far the most animated and charismatic, especially when talking about the smallest details. Snorting "powdered sugar really hurts," he points out.

Apparently that dummy cocaine was the only drug or drug use faked in the movie. The actors and crew interviewed here say that, like Wyatt and Billy, they also liked to have a joint in the morning and the evening. One producer notes that the crew received a kilo of marijuana for personal use, and all interviewees confirm that any time you see someone smoking a joint on-screen, it was loaded with the kind bud. There's so much drug talk, in fact, that you start to wonder how a movie could get made by such a bunch of stoners. "You can't do this with hard drugs, but you can do it with grass," we're assured.

Most of the comments add up to something like "We were so loaded that we didn't know where we were." Then again, Fonda or another member of the crew ends up surprising you with a sober story about how they found local nonactors to play themselves as the Southern racists at the end. And Hopper even fesses up to a secret motivational device: "I told them that we'd raped and murdered a girl outside of town so it was OK to say whatever they wanted." Yet except for a few prize anecdotes, Hopper comes across as a distant intellectual in most of the interviews and during the full-length director's commentary. Everyone else still burns with the enthusiasm.

Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

MORE FROM Max Garrone

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dennis Hopper Movies