A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the release of Easy Rider in 1969 marked a significant change in American filmmaking. Never before had a low-budget, offbeat movie made such an impact on young audiences. Reflecting a chaotic time in a country that was deeply divided in its values, the film's frank treatment of alternative lifestyles, sexual "freedom," and drug and alcohol use (pervasive marijuana smoking, consumption of cocaine and hallucinogens, heavy drinking and drunkenness) struck a deep nerve. The film and its music are still considered classic and unequaled. Mild, infrequent swearing ("a--hole," "Yankee queers," "goddamn") is included. Sexuality and some nudity (no intercourse) are seen in both idyllic settings and in a frenzied acid trip. The few violent scenes are extreme, shocking, and bloody. (Spoiler alert: Important characters are killed by gunfire and a brutal beating).
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What's the story?
Riding motorcycles ("chopper"-style) emblazoned with insignia that announce their "freedom" and wearing the in-your-face attire of the 1960s hippie culture, Wyatt, aka Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) set off in EASY RIDER to cross the U.S., taking the southern route from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Financing their pleasure-seeking and identify-giving odyssey with money they received from a cocaine deal, they feel rich and invulnerable. The two men encounter both friends and foes along the way: a Mexican family trying to make a home in the desert, a budding commune filled with idealistic counterculture youth, mean good ol' boys (brutally representing the bigotry of the southern states), and a slick and funny alcoholic lawyer named George (an astonishing, Oscar-nominated performance by Jack Nicholson). Marijuana and alcohol fuel their journey as profoundly as the gasoline with which they fill their tanks. After one gigantic misstep resulting in tragedy, they reach New Orleans at Mardi Gras and, accompanied by two women from an infamous brothel, live out their grandest fantasies. But is the country ready for such unapologetic, "radical" behavior? In the words of one of the protagonists, "They may talk about individual freedom, but if they see a free individual, it makes them scared...it makes them dangerous." His words prove to be prophetic.
Is it any good?
At the time Easy Rider was made, it was revolutionary -- a personal film less interested in plot and subplots than images, individual moments, music, and a mostly new way of looking at 1969 America. Jack Nicholson's performance launched a career that would be going strong nearly half a century later. For some, it was hard to see past the antiestablishment messages, its take on sexual "liberation," and the brazen celebration of being "high." At the box office, it was a commanding success. It also was a cautionary tale, never flinching from the consequences of such unorthodox behavior. Looking back, from a 21st-century perspective, there's still much to be admired, including not only the film's place in the history of moviemaking but also the extraordinary blending of film and music (classic Steppenwolf, the Band, and the Byrds), the wonderful performances, the headiness of its concepts, and its desire to push the limits in presenting a distinctive point of view.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Easy Rider as an outstanding example of the artistic blending of film and music. How did the music affect your understanding and enjoyment of the story? How did the music affect your visual experience of the road trip?
What do you think Wyatt (Captain America) means when he says, "We blew it," near the end of the movie?
Discuss the term "game changer" when it comes to describing a movie. Find out why this movie was considered a game changer and broke new ground in filmmaking when it was released in 1969.
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