It’s easy to dismiss Easy Rider today, a half century after its debut in American theaters. After all, what piece of art from two and a half generations in the past really remains relevant to the world that’s moved on from its place in history? That analysis usually stems from a look into the impact of the film and its imitators as the for-profit industry sought to recreate the success, but it misses the story of the fandom. Not just the fandom that the movie created in the theater, but the ongoing enthusiasm for the lifestyle that these films stirred in a lot of the young people who encountered them. Not only were motorcycle and outlaw films bringing a new kind of machine to the consciousness of Americans, they were bringing a new type of storytelling. The protagonists no longer had to be the good guys, and sometimes it was even okay to root against them. This created a new way of viewing film for a lot of people. While it was popular in avant garde circles, the breakout of the antihero in mainstream American cinema did a lot to define the noteworthy films of the next half century.
From imitators like the B-movie outlaw genre to premium television revivals like Sons of Anarchy, the ongoing legacy of Easy Rider is hard to miss for anyone who is into American film. At the same time, though, the film itself might feel dated or even unnecessary to a modern viewer encountering it for the first time. So, is it still a must-watch? Or has the legacy of Easy Rider outgrown its attraction as a piece of art itself?
The Story Behind Easy Rider
This American classic wasn’t just innovative in its story structure and point of view, it was also one of the films to help establish independent cinema as a viable form of high art in this country. For a lot of the 20th century, art films and European classics had a distinctly different look and feel from American movies, which were governed by a restrictive content code and dialog censorship prior to the groundbreaking free speech cases that defined the cultural struggles of many artists in the 1950s and 1960s. They were mostly restricted by the theaters themselves, which complied with local decency codes at a national level, restricting what could be distributed even in areas without them.
There was still a thriving independent film circuit that boasted a combination of high art and low humor in those times before indie film really broke out, and if you are interested, John Waters talks a lot about it in his memoirs and one man shows, because he was an early participant who remained active throughout the prime years for indie film and grindhouse pictures. It would be oversimplifying things to say Easy Rider was alone in this kind of storytelling when the truth was that a morally neutral, hyper-realistic aesthetic was coming to film from a lot of directions. What Easy Rider did for the industry was it showed a few things that had commonly been dismissed:
- A film produced with independent financing for $400,000 could become a blockbuster hit grossing over $60 million in the late 1960s
- Films about outlaw segments of American society had wide audience appeal
- American audiences had a hunger for stories about the bad guys
- Tragedies, in the classic sense, did have an American audience
For decades, all these things were assumed to be false, or at least the film industry allowed people to assume they were false. The performance of Easy Rider at Cannes and around the world shattered those assumptions, making it easier and easier for films with similar style and content.
What Easy Rider Means for the Motorcycle World
It’s hard to encapsulate everything Easy Rider means to motorcycle riders, because its impact is spread across a few generations. In the immediate aftermath of its release, it inspired a wave of outlaw-style action and adventure movies that spanned decades, sometimes foregoing the motorcycle itself and focusing more on the tragic arc of the protagonists, as in the cult classic The Way of the Gun featuring James Caan in an iconic supporting role. More often, the motorcycle and the outlaw lifestyle became the central focus, mythologized to the point of being larger than life. The nihilistic acceptance of a way of life that ends more often than not in a violent demise is central to the genre, whether that end comes in the form of an accident during a competition, a chase gone wrong, or a last stand against the forces of order.
For those outside the culture when it came out, it provided a view into a lifestyle that was so far outside the norms of American society, it was like a glimpse into another world. Young men were especially impressed by the rugged acceptance of fate and the hard boiled attitudes of the protagonists, and the mythologized criminal became almost a mandatory part of crime movies, even when the focus was on the police as protagonists. It was also a chance to show the brutality inflicted on all manner of nonconforming populations at the time. While Civil Rights laws had been recently put in place when the film came out, they were not widely supported in all parts of the country, and race was not the only line Americans used to divide those they would accept and those they would punish. In a country where gay rights, race, gender, and other topics were highly politicized, it opened eyes to the way conformist ideals entrench bigotry, and it did a lot to push back against the idea that people who opposed motorcycle culture had the moral high ground.
Between these different high points, the Easy Rider movie brought a lot of people into the culture in a single generation, and the fact that most of them started riding without changing their lifestyles and becoming outlaws helped to legitimize the sport to the American public, leading to wider coverage for Motocross events and more and more people adding motorcycles to their home vehicle pools. That attitude filtered down, so second and third-generation riders who don’t know the movie can still thank it for their introduction to their favorite hobby.
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