Arts

Cult Movie: Cult classic Easy Rider a road trip worth re-taking

Fonda's Easy Rider offered a vision of American youth at a cultural crossroads
Ralph McLean

Peter Fonda RIP

THE very day before news of Peter Fonda's death from cancer at the age of 79 filtered through on social media last week, I was aimlessly flicking through the TV channels desperately looking for something to catch my interest among the broadcasting landfill of the late night schedules when I noticed that the Sony Movie Channel was showing Easy Rider.

Now, in my youth I'd had a, perhaps predictable, fondness for that freewheeling 1969 road trip through the American heartland. I say 'predictable' because just about every pimply faced teenager who pines to raise a middle finger to the rain grey reality of the daily grind and hit the highway to personal freedom instead can sense the deep rooted magic in that movie, can't they?

That image of those three unlikely counter cultural heroes Wyatt, Billy and George (Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson) riding their bikes through the wide open west, wind in their faces and Zeitgeist stretching out on the sun-baked open road before them, still crackles with a special kind of primal allure.

However, the passing of time and the changing of social mores means it's a film that has lost a lot of its lustre. The central storyline involving a cocaine smuggling operation across the States seems seedy and nasty now where once it may have come across as hopelessly romantic, and all that relentless glamorisation of drugs and casual sexism is outmoded and unattractive now, isn't it?

I have to admit, I hadn't watched Easy Rider in years, but something about the idea of spending some time with that trio of wild-eyed freedom riders appealed to me that night. I had intended to merely stay a few minutes, maybe just watch a little bit of Jack Nicholson munching down some scenery as the legal advisor who joins Hopper and Fonda on their frazzled journey of self-discovery and perhaps singalong with a little Steppenwolf for good luck.

Of course, I watched the whole thing and wound up astonished at just how good Easy Rider really is, despite its many flaws.

It's a superb road trip for a start. The widescreen American vistas are glorious throughout and there's a rootlessness in watching the vast, sun-kissed emptiness of the road unfold before your eyes as the sublime rock soundtrack rolls on in the background that is utterly mesmerising.

As star, co-writer and producer (Hopper directed) Fonda's fingerprints are all over this and he brings an existential sheen to the story that lifts it far beyond the clichéd 'peace and love' Woodstock-era vibe it usually gets tagged with.

As a vision of American youth at the cultural crossroads this is bleak stuff and the sense of a nation divided is captured beautifully at times in the uncomprehending faces of straight society and in the bubbling resentment of the rednecks who want to destroy this liberal dream.

All sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it? That's the real magic of Fonda's vision – a film that spoke to an entire generation and continues to speak to an entirely new one today.

 

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