Easy Rider appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Overall, the picture looked good, especially considering the age of Easy Rider and its small (roughly $400,000) budget.
When sharpness faltered, it did so due to issues with the film stocks. As I mentioned, this film wasn’t exactly a glossy, high-budget production, so the mild softness that occurred was perfectly appropriate. The movie showed more than acceptable clarity and definition, and it often excelled; many portions of the film looked literally like they were shot yesterday. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and edge enhancement was absent. Source flaws also failed to create distractions during this clean presentation.
Except for the washed-out Mardi Gras/cemetery sequences, colors appeared strong and rich. The tones were nicely lively and dynamic for the most part. Blacks looked quite deep; check out Wyatt's leather outfit to see some good examples of that strength. Shadow detail seemed more than acceptable. Again, the nature of the original photography meant that some murkiness would occur, but the shots looked perfectly fine given those constraints. The handful of soft shots and some thick shadows meant I wasn’t comfortable with an “A”-level grade, but I thought about it; so much of the flick looked great that an “A-“ sure wouldn’t be out of the question.
Though not quite as impressive, the sound also seemed positive for 40-year-old movie. Easy Rider offered a remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack. (The original mono was also an option.) While it remained monaural at heart, there was some use of effects in other channels. For example, at the start of the film, planes entered from the rear channels and panned to the front, and later on, motorcycles popped up in other speakers. We also heard some gentle rear channel ambiance in scenes like nighttime forests. The film's famed musical track used stereo capabilities well.
Audio quality seemed more than acceptable. Except when intentionally muddled, dialogue appeared clear and intelligible, and I thought the lines were fairly natural. Effects sounded fine for their vintage; those elements weren’t particularly dynamic, but they offered good clarity for the most part. Bass response was a little loose during the handful of loud sequences, but I thought the low-end remained mostly fine.
The music sounded best. Those aspects of the track depended on the source material – which meant some edginess to a few vocals - but they usually were pretty dynamic and lively. Despite some faults, this remained a positive sound mix for a film of this vintage.
How did the picture and sound of this Criterion release compare with those of the 2009 Blu-ray? Both were pretty similar, though I’d give the nod to the Criterion version. Its visuals seemed a bit livelier, and the audio came across as a bit smoother. The improvements weren’t substantial enough to warrant a change in grades, but I still thought the Criterion edition was the superior of the two.
As we head to the extras, we open with two audio commentaries. The first comes from director/actor Dennis Hopper. He offers a running, screen-specific track. Hopper tells us about the project’s genesis, its locations, the actors, editing, music and elements of the shoot like the many improvised bits.
Although this isn’t the same commentary found on the old 1999 DVD – and the 2009 Blu-ray – it sure has the same strengths and weaknesses. On the negative side, Hopper lets too much of the movie pass without comment; we get an awful lot of dead air here, and he occasionally does little more than name locations or particular actors. Still, when Hopper speaks, he throws out some pretty good info. This is an inconsistent track, but not a bad one.
Another commentary includes Hopper, actor Peter Fonda and production manager Paul Lewis. All sit together – with Hopper connected via teleconference – for a running, screen-specific chat. They cover the same range of subjects found on Hopper’s solo commentary, and that’s sometimes literally true; many of the same facts pop up here.
That said, I think this commentary provides the more satisfying of the pair, partially because it lacks all the dead air. It also throws in different perspectives, and it doesn’t lose much from the Hopper solo piece. Fans will want to check out both tracks, but if you only choose to listen to one, I’d opt for this piece.
Next up is a nice 64-minute and 51-second documentary called Shaking the Cage. This features interviews with Hopper, Fonda, Lewis, associate producer Bill Hayward, camera assistant Seymour Cassel, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, and actors Karen Black, and Luke Askew. The show goes into the origins of Rider and its development, shooting at Mardi Gras, the general chaos of the production, casting, drugs in the movie and the atmosphere of the era, choosing the motorcycles, cinematography, improvisation, locations, music, the characters and various shooting notes, editing and the movie’s reception.
The program follows the shooting schedule for the most part, which means we don’t always hear about sequences in the order shown in the movie. For instance, the Mardi Gras info shows up first although those scenes come at the flick’s end. Much of the show is essentially anecdotal, which lends it a lot of energy. We learn a ton about the production and hear many amusing and interesting stories in this fine documentary. Indeed, it’s good enough that it essentially renders the commentary superfluous.
We also find a 1995 BBC documentary entitled Born to Be Wild. It lasts 29 minutes, 50 seconds and features notes from Hopper, Fonda, Black, Kovacs, editorial consultant Henry Jaglom, and Terry Southern biographer Lee Hill. “Wild” looks at the era in which it was made and its cinematic landscape, the project’s development and story issues, cast, characters and performances, cinematography, editing and music, the film’s release and reception.
Even after two commentaries and a long documentary, “Wild” finds some stones left to unturn. It moves at a good pace and throws out a fair number of interesting tales not covered elsewhere. The show adds value to the set.
We hear more from BBS co-founder Steve Blauner in an 18-minute, 40-second interview. Recorded in 2010, Blauner discusses the origins of the Monkees, making/selling Easy Rider, developing BBS and other aspects of his career. Even though others have touched on many of these topics, Blauner gives them his own spin. He’s an interesting speaker who makes this a consistently enjoyable featurette.
In addition to two trailers, we locate Hopper and Fonda at Cannes. It goes for two minutes, eight seconds as it lets us see the pair in France to promote the film. They chat a little but don’t tell us much. It’s useful for archival value and that’s it.
A big old 112-page booklet covers all seven films in the “America Lost and Found” boxed set. It includes essays on five of the seven flicks: Head, Easy Rider, The King of Marvin Gardens, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show. It also delivers an essay about BBS, credits and photos. Criterion usually produce excellent booklets, and this one delivers another terrific companion to the movies.
I don't believe I'll ever think of Easy Rider as a great film, but I now have a stronger appreciation of it. Indeed, the more I see it, the more I like it; what I once viewed as an awful movie has become at least reasonably compelling to me. The Blu-ray provides positive picture and audio as well as a solid collection of supplements. The release gets virtually everything right and becomes the best version of Rider to ever hit home video.
Note that as of November 2010, this Blu-ray version of Easy Rider can be found only in a seven-movie boxed set called “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story”. This package also includes Head, Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Picture Show, Drive, He Said and A Safe Place.
To rate this film, visit the Special Edition review of EASY RIDER