Stylus is on vacation today, but we won't be taking President's day off. See you Monday!

Pop Playground
Easy Rider

n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue. Appearing every other Tuesday under the Pop Playground banner, we’re pleased to plant a big sloppy Kiss After Supper on you...

Well, if the right-wing and a politically-motivated medical community alike were ever searching for a living, breathing example that popping down acid like PEZ while manually masturbating caged monkeys for the purposes of artificial insemination can in fact have catastrophic effects on the élan vital of an entire generation, I think those of us who still manage to think with our eyes facing forward should plunk Dennis Hopper down front and center for a thorough physical examination by Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and the gang. At the raucous county fair America’s popular landscape has doubtlessly become, Hopper’s well-documented life serves as upright proof that the blowback from the 1960's magical mystery tour has indeed come to a kind of absurdly-dissolute fruition in the 21st century, Hopper having transformed himself from director of the counterculture’s most mainstream success (cinematically at least) to a man who has openly professed his admiration for Newt Gingrich’s brand of neo-fascism.

Having previously served as the coarse yang to Peter Fonda’s eye-candy yin in a duo that unquestionably should be credited as the most important antecedents of not simply soundtrack-driven cinema but the independent movie genre itself, Dennis Hopper has gone from playing the loveless but necessary Billy to being a sort of Vogue magazine circus sideshow in recent years, someone whose relevance, while having steadily gone downhill since directing Easy Rider, has reached a new and previously unfathomable low as an out-and-out Bush supporter in 2004 (I know, we all thought his turn as King Koopa in 1993's Super Mario Bros live-action thrill ride might fortunately sound the death knell for his visible career, but like my grandpappy said, live and learn).

So while the darling child of the 1960's, Peter Fonda, served as both producer and star for the 60’s take of On the Road, in fact playing the film’s only “round” character (modestly though he is, Captain America is nonetheless “round”), it is Hopper’s ever-protean psyche that American cinema apparently has to thank for Easy Rider. From its offbeat subject to its novel camera work, the high watermark of 60s counterculture cinema (a somewhat dubious honor, considering its immediate predecessors were the Jack Nicholson-penned The Trip and Head) has maintained relevance next to its dust bunny-collecting brethren because it is, quite obviously, a movie of incomparably greater ideological and artistic vision—there is no need to further split hairs.

But while the movie is filled with songs that make its soundtrack a veritable cache of 60s cool, replete with performances by many who performed at Woodstock the same year as its release, it also branches out to new cinematic territory by integrating the “sounds of silence”, as it were, relentlessly juxtaposing its music-video moments with an acute attention paid to ambient noise.

From its opening scene, when the raucous, high-pitched whine of moto-cross scooters comes into the audible foreground while the camera prosaically focuses on a wayward gas station, it is apparent that Hopper and co. were intent on taking cinema beyond any sense it had of itself as an art form owned and subsidized solely by large Hollywood studios. Never mind the unpalatable anti-hero subjects, nor the novel approach its makers took towards compiling a soundtrack—in Easy Rider we see for the first time the experimentalist fervor of the 1960’s being integrated into a film whose appeal to audiences went beyond mere side show enchantment, and a large degree of its ability to break new ground can be chalked up to the concomitant assault of one’s auditory and visual senses Hopper was so obviously intent on. Listen with your speakers turned up just a tad higher than normal (a temptation not entirely unforthcoming just given its music content) and you will notice the repeated attention paid to the throttling hum of Billy and Wyatt’s “silver steeds”, and in fact engines in general from the film’s very outset, as from its opening frame the audience is transported from the gas station to the airport, where we watch Captain America placidly anticipating the touchdown of a plane’s wheels. Stoned out of his head and fascinated by his own sensory perceptions, Captain America ushers in the 60s unique take on the anti-hero, a character whose contemplative side carries him and the audience along through much of the threadbare plot.

Though most have characterized the movie and its accompanying soundtrack (which has achieved by itself a well-veneered popular renown almost as burdensome to any objective appreciation of it as the film has) as reflective of the idealism and free-spirit with which flower-power is typically associated, the music Hopper chose routinely reflects an ambivalence towards the ethos shared by Captain America and Billy, an ambivalence doubtlessly sounded back by thousands of that generation’s California dreamers.

With the dirty opening guitar chords of Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” introducing the audience to Billy and Wyatt’s escapist journey, complete with an image of them shuffling quickly away from their drug deal like two charmingly innocent lads who have surreptitiously scored two bits worth of candy in a Charles Dickens novel, the film’s first pop song immediately tosses viewers into a dirty pool of seemingly contradictory terms; its heroes, having just sold a good portion of cocaine to finance their little sojourn of freedom, are ostensibly that vilified typology being sung about by the iconic 60s group. And though at first listen Steppenwolf’s lyrics seem about as reactionary to the counterculture as Dennis Hopper might be currently, the distinction between the “dealer”, who sells only grass, and the “pusher”, who “don’t care. . . if you live or if you die” is clearly annunciated, and so the song itself seems wholly appropriate for a movie which simultaneously embraces and questions counterculture values, retaining some of the old vanguard’s parochialism while taking the time to distinguish between someone who innocuously sells grass and one who nefariously pushes the drugs (on the kids and the like , you know), a distinction their predecessors likely refused to make. But then we can perhaps also see a sort of thirty-five year foreshadowing in Hopper’s choice of song here, the song ending with “If I were the president of this land / You know, I’d declare total war on the pusher man / I’d cut him if he stands, and I’d shoot him if he’d run / Yes I’d kill him with my Bible, and my razor, and my gun”.

But Steppenwolf’s cautionary tale about the dangers of the drug dealer quickly gives way to the group’s defining rock anthem “Born to be Wild”, a song which perhaps most simply echoes the free road spirit that is marked so indelibly on every frame. While Billy and Captain America scream down various country highways the song plods along, this true introduction to the two characters perhaps ruined for anyone not afforded a view of it during its original few years; “Born to be Wild” has most certainly had any of its potential dramatic effect severely diminished by countless repetitions in football stadiums, movies, and karaoke bars alike during the intervening years.

One need not get more than ten minutes into the movie before the stark realization of the soundtrack’s brilliance hits you square between the eyes—it’s just got so many good fuckin’ songs! As a veritable soundtrack to the 1960s Easy Rider the soundtrack does as effective a job of capturing the counterculture spirit in music as it does of visually capturing a number of counterculture trends in society. Cataloguing, while they made their names in rock n roll, the music’s most important and influential artists, in fact the most revered artists of the time, from the Who to Jimi Hendrix, the Animals and Jefferson Airplane, the movie’s musical participants reads like some gypsy fortune teller’s predictions for future inductees to the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. Because of the atmosphere of the movie business at the time, Hopper and Fonda had virtual carte blanche in deciding what songs to include in their drug-fueled opus. And they obviously took full advantage. One of the few cases in cinematic history where a filmmaker has been able to simultaneously include quality and quantity in assembling a soundtrack, Easy Rider is obviously chalk-full of hearty music goodness, though one instance must be paid particular attention to as, in my opinion, one of the greatest uses of music in the history of movies.

Roughly twenty minutes into the film Hopper creates what might aptly be termed the first music video, pairing the Band’s “The Weight” with a long road series which follows Wyatt and Billy, along with their hippy-commune hitchhiking guest, as they speed along the highways of America, reveling in the scenery and fraternal company. Through the red rocks of the west Hopper does what mainstream cinema rarely had allowed itself to do—sit and be. In an extended scene which furthers neither plot nor character (at least in any conventional sense), almost the entire song plays through as the camera cuts back and forth from close-ups of the duo’s all-important motorcycles and the great, as-yet “untouched” landscape of the American west. Ironically enough the Band’s version of the song was the only song included in the film and not allowed on the original soundtrack because of contractual problems—it was replaced by Smith’s doubtlessly lesser version.

But if the movie contains a plethora of visual and musical gems that show the 60s at its best, both cinematically and musically, then it must have one or two low points. Which it does, and unfortunately Hopper chose one of these low points as a refrain.

Never having been a huge fan of the Byrds, I have since high school retained a rather flat-out loathing for the Crosby-inspired San Francisco ethos the super-group promulgated so wholeheartedly during its short tenure in the pop world. Easy Rider’s repeated use of the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow” certainly echoes the natural/mystical fascination of the 1960’s, but in retrospect its lyrics, while sounding like they might have been made while stoned (?!?), reflect more the simplistic and inane idealism of the times than they do a vision of Khan’s palace. Sounding like something Coleridge might’ve written if he had been born with 47 chromosomes, the lame, rambling lyrics can cause headache if one is not careful to have the remote firmly in hand when repeatedly screening the film.

Ultimately there are far too many songs and memorable moments to write exhaustively about the movie. I might compare writing about Easy Rider’s contribution to the synth-pop world of American cinema in the space of a biweekly column to writing your five-page midterm (for any class, it doesn’t matter which—it could be physics) about the book of Genesis—simply put, there is far too much there. From the plaintive cries of Richie Havens’ “High Flyin’ Bird” as used in the film to Jack Nicholson’s classic portrayal of the cryptic-comment-loving southerner George, Easy Rider continues to at once offer social and artistic prompts which have, over the course of the last 35 years, transcended its initial place in time. While it’s easy for many of us to dismiss some of the film’s seemingly-simplistic characterizations, as my Yank parents both note every time Easy Rider is brought up in conversation (surprisingly often), living in the South at that time (as they were in the late 1960’s) one all too often was confronted by the type of redneck who kills the two anti-heroes in a rather sudden and anticlimactic ending. It seems both ironic and sad that Dennis Hopper, the man whose vision is so wonderfully reflected in the 1969 film, would these days most likely be found not on a motorcycle flicking off a couple of rednecks, but would himself be in the driver’s seat, playfully aiming his gun at the contemporary versions of Billy and Wyatt (whoever they might be). Then he’d shoot ‘em.

Like watching Brad Pitt in any one of the monolithic roles in which he simply plays a hypo-cool, hypo-sexy version of what appears to be his true-to-life self, I was utterly convinced by the on-screen depiction Hopper so weakly conjures up in Easy Rider that he was indeed acting himself. And history has largely proved me right.

Hollywood’s golden ass Dennis Hopper managed to convince me so wholly of his character Billy’s rather insufferable inanity that I was, after seeing the movie for the first time in more than five years (and perhaps for the first time ever not high), left befuddled as to where the distinction between character and man is left.

By: Drew Miller

Log In to Post Comments
No comments posted.
all content copyright 2004