Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), a herald of Hollywood’s ‘70s renaissance and lament for the death of the ‘60s counterculture, is a movie famously full of moments powered by popular music of the era. No doubt the best known is the iconic opening credits sequence set to Steppenwolf’s hard-rock anthem “Born to Be Wild,” in which the film’s biker heroes, Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda), flush with cash after a drug deal in Los Angeles, hit the road, heading east toward an early retirement in Florida. The musical moments I find the most memorable and moving, however, land back-to-back a bit later, as the two modern-day outlaws navigate the mythic landscape of the American Southwest.
The first is an upbeat montage sequence that finds Billy and Wyatt riding through a high ponderosa pine forest to “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” a country-and-western-style psychedelic ode to independence by The Byrds. Shot on location in the mountains near Flagstaff, Arizona by legendary cinematographer László Kovács, the imagery in this sequence stirringly evokes the freedom of the open road and the supreme autonomy of the bikers, who, thanks to frequent lens flares and prismatic refractions of sunlight, are bathed throughout in a celestial glow. It is the soundtrack, though, that establishes the mood and meaning of the montage. Epitomising the bright “California sound” of the ‘60s, its shimmering chords, plaintive pedal-steel phrasing, propulsive rhythm, and poetic lyrics capture the sheer joy of locomotion and celebrate the notion of going one’s own way.
This musical moment is linked to a second by a short dramatic scene in which Billy and Wyatt, having picked up a hippie hitchhiking back to his commune, stop at a highway filling station to gas up their choppers. When they return to the road, tanks full courtesy of their passenger, we are treated to another extended montage sequence, this one set against the stunning backdrop of Arizona’s Painted Desert and Monument Valley, and scored by The Band’s plangent folk-rock ballad “The Weight.” Once more, the imagery focuses on bodies in motion, as the bikes motor past vibrantly banded rock formations and towering mesas. This time, however, the music is elegiac, its gospel-influenced piano and vocal harmonising complemented by lyrics that speak, especially in the song’s famous chorus, to the importance of fellowship and solidarity.
These linked sequences neatly encapsulate the central thematic conflict of the movie, musically evoking contradictory impulses at war within Billy and Wyatt: toward selfish individualism on the one hand and altruistic collectivism on the other. At this point in the film, they feel the pull of both equally. By its conclusion, they have fatally embraced the former, as Wyatt recognises. But Easy Rider’s musical moments are not just thematically on point. They carry an unexpected emotional charge half a century after its release, at a time when the freedom of the open road has been foreclosed by quarantine and solidarity is in short supply. It’s enough to make one wonder, à la Wyatt: did we blow it?