The Legacy of 'Easy Rider'

12 things we would be without had it not been for Dennis Hopper's iconic road trip movie.

Easy Rider
Sony Pictures

The summer of 1969 was filled with major historical events, from the Stonewall riots to the Moon landing to the Manson Family murders to Woodstock. That season also saw the release of a number of films that would go down in history as cultural landmarks, none so significantly as Dennis Hopper‘s debut feature, Easy Rider. The iconic motorcycle road movie, which stars Hopper, his co-writer and producer Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson, has quite the legacy. From its influence on filmmaking and the film industry to the sequel you probably didn’t know exists, plus the way it made Rip Torn a ton of money decades later, below is a list of the most notable effects of Easy Rider‘s existence.

The New Hollywood

Easy Rider In Mardi Gras

American cinema was already changing by the time of Easy Rider’s release on July 14, 1969. Starting with Bonnie and Clyde two summers earlier and continuing with The Graduate, a new wave of auteurist filmmaking influenced by foreign and experimental directors and catering to the counterculture youth in the US was catching the attention (and box office grosses) that traditional Hollywood production had been failing to achieve. According to Peter Siskind, who wrote the book on the era, the period called the New Hollywood truly began with the independently produced and hugely profitable Easy Rider. This was the movie that shocked studio execs most, on both a creative level and in a business sense. And that had to be scary for the suits, relinquishing most of their control to young outsiders (well, Fonda and Hopper had the appearance of outsiders anyway) in order to connect with the current audience. Although nothing quite like Easy Rider hit the mark again, there was a continued trend towards smaller, freer movies made by fresh talents, which fortunately paid off in many ways.


Jack Nicholson’s Stardom

Jack Nicholson Easy Rider

One of the true young outsiders who benefited greatly from the success of Easy Rider was Jack Nicholson. The actor had already been working regularly for a decade, mostly in low-budget horror and Western films, but this movie skyrocketed him to fame. Nicholson wasn’t initially involved. Fortunately, he had written Roger Corman’s The Trip, starring Fonda and Hopper, and he had co-written The Monkees’ movie Head for the company that would produce Easy Rider. When Rip Torn bailed on the supporting role of George Hanson, Nicholson was brought in. He’s on screen for only a fraction of the running time, but he stood out enough to garner an Oscar nomination. From there, he re-teamed with Head director and Easy Rider producer Bob Rafelson to star in Five Easy Pieces, which earned him another Academy Award nod. And among his future collaborators who claimed to have first taken a liking to him with Easy Rider were Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) and Michelangelo Antonioni (The Passenger). He’s been one of the most recognized movie stars ever since.


The Soundtrack

Easy Rider Soundtrack

Initially, Easy Rider was going to have a soundtrack of music written and performed solely by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, similar to the way The Graduate was “scored” with songs by Simon & Garfunkel. But Hopper rejected them for being too fancy, and the production wound up keeping placeholder songs employed during the editing of the film instead. It was costly, taking up a huge portion of the budget, and the use of previously existing music for a soundtrack was very rare. But these songs, by artists including The Band, The Byrds, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, fit so perfectly in their “needle-drop” way and helped the appeal of the movie for young audiences while also allowing for extra profitability in soundtrack album sales. Following its success, similar kinds of compilation album soundtracks became the norm, and Steppenwolf’s already popular hit “Born to Be Wild” went on to greater familiarity as it became synonymous with motorcycles and scenes in movies and TV in which characters head out on the highway, looking for adventure.


Motorcycle Safety

Not So Easy A Motorcycle Safety Film

You’d think that Easy Rider impacted motorcycle sales, especially for custom Harley Davidson choppers. But while every article in recent years mentions the movie when reporting on millennials not buying motorcycles, the reality was that they were already increasing in popularity through the 1960s thanks to other biker movies, media, organizations, and just their easy association with the free spirit mentality of the era. If anything, Easy Rider seems to have given Harley a brief boost but not a long-term thrust. Motorcycle safety, on the other hand, wasn’t as big a deal before the movie’s release as it would become afterward. That’s not to say Easy Rider, even with its tragic ending, influenced the rise in concern or the establishment of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation in 1973. However, that very same year, Fonda starred in and narrated the short film Not So Easy – A Motorcycle Safety Film, appearing in a semblance of his “Captain America” costume. It’s directed by Cliff Vaughs, who designed the motorcycles in Easy Rider, and it also features Evel Knievel.


Cocaine Use

Phil Spector Easy Rider

If you think of any drug being associated with Easy Rider, it’s marijuana, right? The characters are smoking grass throughout the movie, and reportedly that was all real. But the movie begins with a cocaine deal, and while that wasn’t genuine “pura vida” on screen, its supposed effect might have been. “The cocaine problem in the United States is really because of me,” Hopper is quoted as saying in Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. “There was no cocaine before Easy Rider on the street. After Easy Rider it was everywhere.” Is that a fact? According to the book Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, “This is not quite true…however, there is certainly some merit in it.” Author Dominic Streatfeild claims the movie was popular enough to give coke its greatest mainstream spotlight in 50 years. Yet he says it was the media, particularly articles in Rolling Stone and Newsweek, that pushed further attention on the drug on a grand scale. But that all came about after Hopper chose what he referred to as “the king of drugs” instead of heroin for narrative logic and convenience.


Lens Flare

Easy Rider Lens Flare

Another thing Easy Rider gets credit for that seems difficult to prove is its influence on cinematography. Specifically in the use of — or allowance for but now also digital addition of — lens flare. Beforehand, the norm was indeed to do anything possible to avoid glare and lens flare. A 2016 video essay by Vox credits Gregg Toland and Citizen Kane with establishing customs for shooting deep focus scenes without lens flare. Any film that had them was by mistake. The video essay also points to Conrad Hall’s work on Cool Hand Luke as well as The Graduate as examples alongside Easy Rider regarding the New Hollywood’s aim to embrace such errors for a documentary feel and a way to show the freedom of shooting out in the real world as opposed to a studio “box.” Cool Hand Luke and The Graduate came out two years prior to Easy Rider. You can also see it earlier in 1968’s Planet of the Apes. Unintentional or not, lens flare can be found in tons of major films for decades before Easy Rider, and DP László Kovács may not have even deliberately shot it that way so much as accepted the flare out of necessity. So why is Easy Rider given so much recognition for it? Hopper erroneously received credit in obituaries as being its inventor, for one. I think Easy Rider just featured so much lens flair so prominently that people really took notice of it there. So, whenever it was brought up later, Easy Rider became the movie synonymous with lens flare.


Parodies and Homages

Pinky And The Brain Easy Rider

Surprisingly, nobody thought to produce Easy Rider toys at the time. Billy and Wyatt dolls with their motorcycles seem like something that would have sold well. But of course, Easy Rider isn’t a children’s movie, even if it was aimed at being for “the kids.” The youth of my generation knew of the iconography of the movie before ever seeing it proper, though, thanks to homages in the cartoons Goof Troop and Pinky and the Brain (nice touch with the fake Steppenwolf). Such parodies and homages can be found all over the place in the 50 years since the release of Easy Rider, for kids and adults alike. The Family Guy‘s tribute does a good job of mocking the cinematography complete with lens flare and a parody of The Byrds’ songs. The band Sloan‘s music video for “The Good in Everyone” eschews the obvious for a re-creation of the coke deal scene. Action Bronson also has a video paying direct homage, for a song actually titled “Easy Rider.” Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas are spot-on as Fonda and Hopper in an SCTV sketch. Then there’s the bit in Starsky & Hutch that goes nowhere. But I kinda hate the lazy Fonda-featured Mercedes Super Bowl ad helmed by the Coen Brothers more.


The Pseudo Sequel

lost in america

There are homages within movies and then there are whole movies that wouldn’t exist without Easy Rider. Yes, I’m partly talking about the copycats and responses, like 1973’s Electra Glide in Blue. Also the movies BBS would produce thanks to their success with Easy Rider, such as Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show. But more significant than all those, and more appreciated, is Albert BrooksLost in America. The 1985 comedy stars Brooks and Julie Hagerty as a couple who decide to drop out of society and travel cross country. What’s Brooks’ character’s inspiration? Easy Rider. There are whole conversations about the plot. When the couple first takes off, it’s even set to “Born to Be Wild” (which was a cue suggested in Brooks’ script). Of course, they’re riding a Winnebago instead of motorcycles, but that’s what makes it funny. Lost in America has been referred to as the anti-Easy Rider or the answer to Easy Rider, and many fans consider it a complementary pseudo-sequel for the way it satirizes the yuppies of the ’80s as a follow-up to the hippies of the ’60s.


The Official Sequel

Easy Rider The Ride Back

We can’t really think of Lost in America as the sequel to Easy Rider, though, and not just because it’s not authorized as such. There’s also now an actual, official sequel, 2012’s Easy Rider: The Ride Back (aka Easy Rider 2: The Ride Home), which was legitimately made by a company that got its hands on the rights to do a follow-up. None of the people who made the original had anything to do with it, but it’s lawfully canon (original producer Bert Schneider even sued and lost). Technically, it’s more of a prequel than a sequel, but the movie begins following the events of Easy Rider, with Fonda’s character’s younger brother finding out their father is dying. He has rebuilt his brother’s star-spangled motorcycle and now wears his iconic jacket. As he travels the open road, he tells of his family’s history going back to the 1940s. Easy Rider: The Ride Back is a relatively unknown straight-to-DVD effort with negative reviews, but it’s not a rarity of supposed sacrilege. Tons of classic movies, many of them from the New Hollywood era have unknown or forgotten sequels, it’s just that most of them were actually made by the same studios.


The Lawsuit

Rip Torn Defending Your Life

Lawsuits happen all the time with movie productions. As mentioned above, there was one over the Easy Rider sequel rights. And there was another filed by Rip Torn in 1994 against Dennis Hopper over the legacy of his lost role. This one has been cited many times in the subsequent 25 years and is all over the obituaries of the recently deceased Torn. Probably because Torn won. And because the issue affected Torn’s career almost as much as his losing the part helped Nicholson’s. The story is that Torn was up for the role of George Hanson but he walked away after being attacked by Hopper with a knife during a dinner meeting. Hopper would go on to say it was Torn who pulled the knife on him, and the tale harmed Torn’s career for decades. He finally had it when Hopper told the story once more to its largest audiences while appearing on The Tonight Show to promote Speed in 1994. Torn sued for defamation and won close to $1 million in damages. Not a bad paycheck for a role you never played, but it also makes you wonder what Torn’s career would have been like if the record was set earlier.


Tourism

Easy Rider Bar

Movie location tourism is a big deal with fans, but road movies are difficult to manage if they were actually filmed over the course of a cross-country trip. If you’re a true diehard fan of Easy Rider, though, the proper experience is to tour the movie’s locations while following the route of the characters from LA to New Orleans. On a motorcycle, of course, and if you’re a real Easy Rider fan you have your own chopper anyway. Or you can rent one from EagleRider Rentals & Tours, which has put together a guided tour package for the 50th anniversary of Easy Rider that stops at all the known shooting locations along the way. Some of the movie’s scenes weren’t actually shot during the production’s own road trip — the commune stuff was shot in LA rather than at the real spot in New Mexico because no filming was allowed there — and some spots have been torn down, as is expected half a century later. If you don’t want to pay for the guided experience, most of the locations can be found listed online and you can, therefore, be free to create your own itinerary. Just watch out for rednecks!


“We Keep Blowing It”

Easy Rider Blew It

Easy Rider is a time capsule, a reflection of the time it was made. Some might even call it a relic. But part of the reason its legacy is so strong is that Easy Rider continues to resonate with audiences. For a Hollywood Reporter article on its 50th anniversary, Fonda was asked about its climactic point, stated in the line “We blew it.” He still wouldn’t say what that means, exactly, but he did admit to its broadness and timelessness: “I intended it to be enigmatic and applicable to all kinds of things. When asked today if it’s still relevant, go look at the window and tell me we haven’t blown it.” He’s said that before. This quote is from a Parade magazine interview in 2018: “People often ask me, is it still relevant today? And I say, ‘Well, look out the window and tell me we haven’t blown it.’ We keep blowing it worse. So, yeah, it’s relevant. Now, the costumes are hippie style and that, but when it just comes to me and Hopper on the bikes, there’s no age on that style. Just because I’m wearing the flag on my back doesn’t put me in 1969.”

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.