As Billy and "Captain America," Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda motored down the highway on their Harley Davidsons to the roaring strains of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild," the definitive counterculture blockbuster was born. The former clean-cut teen star Hopper's down-and-dirty directorial debut, Easy Rider heralded the arrival of a new voice in film, one positioned firmly, angrily against the mainstream. After Easy Rider-with its radical, New Wave-style editing, outsider-rock soundtrack, revelatory performance by a young Jack Nicholson, and explosive ending-the American road trip would never be the same.
Available exclusively through their new box set, America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, Criterion presents the groundbreaking hit Easy Rider on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc in 1080p/24hz.
I haven’t managed to get around to seeing the previous Blu-ray edition of the film, released by Sony, so I can’t say if this is the same transfer (though the notes state this one was overseen by director Dennis Hopper) but on here it is easily one of the more film-like transfers I’ve seen on the format. What may drive some nuts is that the film is very grainy, and gets even grainier during a 16mm sequence near the end, but thankfully (from my point of view) Sony and Criterion have kept the grain pretty much intact, using no excessive noise reduction, leaving all details intact and making sure this looks like a film.
The materials are, again, grainy, and there is still some damage present, limited primarily to small bits of debris. Colours look wonderful and they’re the best I’ve yet seen them, from the blue sky, to the brownish-red landscapes, and then of course the red and blues found on Wyatt’s bike, they’re all rendered without issue, and are lively and vibrant, almost jumping off of the screen.
I also didn’t notice any obvious artifacts, the grain structure being handled perfectly and looking natural, and I didn’t detect any edge-enhancement; everything looks clean around the edges. Simply put this is as near-perfect I can imagine the film looking on home video.
Criterion includes three audio tracks, a 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround track, a 2.0 DTS-HD MA track, and a linear PCM 1.0 mono track. The areas they primarily differ in are their presentation of the music and some sound effects in the film. The mono track presents the music in a fairly flat manner, on the level of the audio throughout the rest of the film. The 2.0 stereo track ups it a bit, giving us stereo music that’s louder and clearer, with a bit more range.
The 5.1 track has the music fill out the environment and is a bit louder and sharper with more distinct bass in the lower channel in comparison to the other two tracks. The surround track also has some of the nighttime sound effects (crickets, coyote’s howling, etc.) appear noticeably in the rears at time, and the acid trip scene presents voices and other effects moving between the speakers all around the viewer. For what was essentially a mono track originally remixed to a surround track it sounds pretty impressive.
But, having said that about the music and sound effects, the stereo and 5.1 tracks are essentially mono in the end, with dialogue sticking to the front with little or no panning. The sound quality of the dialogue is virtually the same between the three tracks, coming off a little lower and a bit flat, though still intelligible.
It will come down to preference in the end. For the purists the mono track sounds just fine, but most may find themselves going for the clearer music presentations found in the stereo and 5.1 tracks.
Criterion’s America Lost and Found box set is basically a complete history lesson on BBS Productions and the supplements found on each disc in this set are primarily about the production company as a whole, though each disc still contains supplements that focus primarily on their respective films.
Easy Rider is one of the titles Criterion was to release on laserdisc but it never saw the light of day, along with a number of other Columbia titles (not sure why.) Now they release it on Blu-ray (after many “special editions” previously released on Laserdisc, DVD, and even Blu-ray) in this box set, and it’s unfortunately the more disappointing edition in the set. It carries over supplements from other editions and doesn’t add much that is new, and it also suffers from constant repetition of information throughout.
The film comes with two audio commentaries, the first a new one by director Dennis Hopper, recorded in 2009. While I think it’s wonderful Hopper was able to sit down to record a new track for his landmark film before his death, it’s unfortunately a bit of a dud for a track. The biggest issue is it’s laced with dead spots, and not dead spots here and there, but long dead spots, sometimes through whole scenes, even scenes where you would expect the director would want to say something. In all Hopper covers the general production, mentions some of the influences over the film, points out the symbolism that appears, mentions plenty of deleted scenes (the original cut was apparently close to 4 hours,) casting locals in roles (like in the café scene,) and of course talks about Jack (in a role meant originally for Rip Torn.) He also has a knack for pointing out every song that plays, which is fine but becomes frustrating during the dead spots; sometimes there will be a dead spot in the track, a song will then play in the film, and Hopper will pop in to point out the name of the song, then disappear again.
A little better is the second track, which features Hopper, Peter Fonda, and production manager Paul Lewis. This track is better in that it’s more active, with Fonda and Lewis sort of pushing Hopper to talk (Fonda and Lewis have been recorded together with Hopper on the phone.) This track was recorded for the original laserdisc special edition produced back in 1995 and has appeared in editions on other formats. But it covers the same material the other track does, including the actual production, the time period the film represents, Fonda’s and Hopper’s work with Corman, the acid trip in the cemetery, deleted sequences, it’s release, and so on. Basically it’s the same track as the solo one by Hopper, just with more participants, more details, and coming off much livelier, with everyone talking about it as if you wouldn’t have known this information before, whereas Hopper’s solo track makes it feel like the actor/director is assuming you already know everything about the production and doesn’t need to expand on anything.
We then move to video features, first with Born To Be Wild, a 1995 documentary that appeared on BBC2. Running 30-minutes it quickly goes over the production of the film, featuring interviews with Hopper, Fonda, Karen Black, and Henry Jaglom. Again, it repeats just about everything found on the commentary tracks, but expands a little on certain areas. They talk about getting the funding from “Monkee money” and then developing the script with Terry Southern. There’s a lot of discussion about Jack’s performance (all participants are amazed that Jack was able to pull of some scenes perfectly despite being absolutely stoned) and there’s talk about all the drugs on set (though Hopper admits here and elsewhere on the release that he was more a drinker, marijuana making him a little too paranoid.) There’s then discussion about the 4 hour cut and how hard it was to get Hopper to edit it down, with everyone taking turns at editing (and Hopper still seems annoyed by this) and then they talk about the release and the “we blew it” line. Again, all of this is covered in the commentary tracks (or at least most of it) but it’s still a decent doc.
Annoyingly the next documentary on the disc, a 65-minute piece directed by Charles Kiselyak called Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage, is made up of newer interviews but basically covers the exact same material as the previous documentary, with its interviewees pretty much repeating themselves word for word in some instances. The advantage of this documentary, which includes more of the crew, including director of photography László Kovács, is that it’s more detailed and focuses a little more on specific scenes, even featuring Kovács talking about his camera work in far more detail. More detail is also given about the filming of the Mardi Gras sequence, which was hinted at in other supplements as being a disaster and here that’s made abundantly more clear. Again, continuing from the commentary tracks, there’s more on the casting of the locals in the café scene, and then a better examination of the acid scene. The same material is covered but it appears that more details and specifics have been added, and for that it’s worth viewing.
And then it wouldn’t be a Criterion release without some sort of footage from a French television program, and here they include 2-minutes of footage from the French program Pour le cinema, which features Hopper and Fonda at Cannes. It’s very brief and shows Hopper and Fonda talking about the film (Fonda looking a little spaced as he tries to talk in French.) And here they confirm early on that the film is basically a Western with motorcycles, something that’s been brought up in all of the other features up to this point.
The next feature has to do with BBS productions specifically, and is an interview with Steve Blauner the “’S’ in BBS” as Criterion states. In this 19-minute interview Blauner talks about his first working at Screen Gems and his development television, eventually working with Bob Rafelson on the television show The Monkees. He goes over a little bit of the history of the show and the group, and then moves on to Easy Rider, which he, along with Rafelson and Bert Schneider, helped fund, making the statement there would be “no Easy Rider without The Monkees.” He’s also very frank, stating that if Rip Torn had originally been cast in the Nicholson role as planned, he feels he wouldn’t be here today talking about the film, because it would have been forgotten. After rifling through supplements that all felt the same on this release this interview was a welcome breath of fresh air. He discusses the founding of BBS after Easy Rider and talks in great detail about the office they set up and the atmosphere, and how the employees were treated (everyone getting a “taste” of the successful films.) He talks about the films that followed Easy Rider to an extent, but then concentrates the last portion of the interview on what would turn out to be a frustrating partnership with director Jim McBride after Blauner saw his film, David Holzman’s Diary. Fantastic interview.
The disc then closes with two theatrical trailers, a 3-minute one followed by a 1-minute version that’s basically the same, just a shorter version of it.
Though maybe not the least satisfying collection of supplements to be found on the set, they may be the more disappointing just because they are repetitive. In the end you can really get away with listening to the group commentary and then watching the longer doc, Shaking the Cage (along with the Blauner interview) and call it a day.
America Lost and Found is one of the more fascinating box sets to come from anyone, offering a comprehensive look at one of the more important and interesting production companies to ever get into the business, making an impact that can still be felt today.
The supplements for Easy Rider do offer some fascinating information. Unfortunately the supplements can be redundant. Thankfully, the film’s presentation is top notch, offering an incredible sound track and a near-perfect image.