If Turner Classic Movies is right, if there really is a list of "The Essentials" – the movies everyone ought to see – then somewhere on that list resides 1969's legendary Easy Rider. Whether one likes the film or not, whether one believes that it speaks well or poorly of the counterculture, whether or not one condones or condemns the characters in the film, it is a movie which helped change the filmic landscape.
Directed by Dennis Hopper and produced by Peter Fonda (they also co-wrote the script along with Terry Southern), the film stars the two men as Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper). After making a big drug deal at the start of the film, the two end up buying some motorcycles, they stash their extra cash in one of the fuel tanks, and decide to drive from the Southwest to the South and go to Mardi Gras.
By all definitions, the film is a classic road movie. Virtually the entirety of the film takes place during this journey and is about the two men as they head off to find freedom. Along their way, Wyatt and Billy do drugs, meet a rancher, do more drugs, visit a hippie commune, do drugs, get arrested and meet an ACLU lawyer (Jack Nicholson), do drugs, get run out a small Louisiana town, do drugs, etc.
Made for a small budget and outside the unraveling Hollywood system, Easy Rider is the product of a very specific moment in American society. It helped cement the movement Peter Biskind recounts in the seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.
It is all-too-easy in a review of Easy Rider to veer off the film itself and end up writing a far more academic paper on the film's place in Hollywood cinema of the 1970s, how it affected the Hollywood system, and how it affected the culture at large. It is because these areas are so ripe for discussion that the film makes the list of movies everyone who likes movies (and quite possibly everyone in general) ought to see. And, one's opinions on the characters and plot of the film probably speak as much to that person's mindset as they do to the film itself, perhaps more.
There are however things which are not debatable about Easy Rider. Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson give fantastic performances. The soundtrack is a fantastic one. The film asks some difficult questions about our society, where we are headed, and where we ought to be headed. For better or worse, the film did help change the way Hollywood films were made to this very day.
It is for all these reasons that it is great to see Easy Rider get a Blu-ray release. The 40th Anniversary edition contains a booklet on the film, the soundtrack, and the stars; as well as an audio commentary by Hopper (during which he is exceptionally quiet for long periods); Sony's movieIQ feature (this provides more info on the film for those with BD-Live enabled players); and a documentary, Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage, about the production.
On Blu-ray, Easy Rider both looks and sounds very good. The print is beautifully clean and the colors of the American Southwest utterly fantastic. The audio track is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 one, and pumps out the film's classic soundtrack in fine fashion. The biggest problem with the entire affair on a technical side is that some of the night scenes are far too dark, but that issue can be placed squarely on Hopper's shoulders, and not on the shoulders of those who readied this release.
You can love it or you can hate it. You can also love what it represents or hate what it represents. What you'll have a far harder time with is calling yourself a "fan" or "student" of cinema without having seen it. Easy Rider is a true classic and a film not to be missed.