Easy Rider appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the picture looked good, especially considering the age of Easy Rider and its small (roughly $400,000) budget.
In general, it seemed quite sharp, though it became strangely out of focus at times. This problem only affected some shots that were wider than those that frame two people. Such images weren't always blurry, but it happened frequently enough to become a pattern. I noticed no shimmering or jaggies, though a mild to moderate amount of edge enhancement occasionally crept into the image. Print flaws manifested themselves sporadically, particularly during the film’s first act. Examples of specks, marks and other blemishes appeared at that time but showed up less frequently as the film progressed.
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 a bit weak at times, especially during some night shots. A few campfire shots were smooth, but others appeared somewhat dense. I'd guess this problem was a victim of the low budget, though. As a whole, these various concerns were not terribly prevalent, and the image was generally quite strong.
The sound also seemed good for 35-year-old movie. Easy Rider offered a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. While it remained monaural at heart, there was some use of effects in other channels. For example, at the start of the film, a plane 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, and the song also cropped up with some added punch in the rears.
For the most part, audio quality seemed acceptable though unspectacular. Except when intentionally muddled, dialogue appeared clear and intelligible, but the lines also came across as a bit thin and flat. Effects sounded about the same, with decent general clarity and that was about it. Some loose bass occasionally accompanied louder elements like the plane. The music sounded better. Those aspects of the track depended on the source material, but they usually were pretty dynamic and lively. Despite some faults, this remained a mostly positive sound mix for a film of this vintage.
If anyone hopes for audio or visual improvements over the 1999 DVD, prepare for disappointment. I’m sure this is the same disc that came out in 1999. I see no indications that it changes the picture or sound, as they appear virtually identical to me. (For the record, I checked the dates on the DVD’s files, and they’re all from 1999. That confirms that this is the same transfer as the old version.)
Things change for the 35th anniversary disc when we examine its supplements. Everything on the DVD itself stays the same, however. We open with an audio commentary 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, and elements of the shoot like the many improvised bits. At times, Hopper presents good insight, but two problems befall the piece. For one, he often just tells us the names of locations and actors with little more detail than that. In addition, the commentary suffers from a ridiculous amount of dead air, as most of the movie passes without any information. Hopper presents just enough material to make this a sporadically useful but mostly frustrating track.
Next up is a nice 64-minute and 47-second documentary called Shaking the Cage. This features movie clips, archival materials, and modern interviews with Hopper, associate producer Bill Hayward, camera assistant Seymour Cassel, production manager Paul Lewis, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, and actors Peter Fonda, 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.
The Easy Rider DVD includes a couple of other fairly standard features. Talent files for Fonda, Nicholson, Hopper and Black appear. They offer very little information and border on useless.
That ends the DVD-based materials. We also get a CD Songtrack. Don’t mistake this for a soundtrack album. Instead, it presents eight tunes, some of which don’t appear in the movie. For example, “Nights in White Satin” and “Get Together” never show up in the film. In addition, we get “The Weight” by Smith and not the rendition from the Band heard in the movie. As a toss-in, it’s a decent disc, but it doesn’t substitute for the real soundtrack album.
For a detailed look at the production, we head to an 80-page BFI Modern Classics book. Simply called Easy Rider and written by Lee Hill, this text gets into a mix of topics connected to the film as well as some interpretation and context. It’s a solid piece.
The package's four-page booklet contains some decent production notes. The information can mostly be found elsewhere, but it offers a good little summary of the film's production and is worth a look.
I don't believe I'll ever think of Easy Rider as a great film, but I now have a somewhat greater appreciation of it. The DVD does pretty well for itself. Picture and audio have flaws but mostly seem good. Despite a very spotty audio commentary, we get some nice supplements, mainly via a fine documentary and a rich book included with this set.
So if you want a DVD of Easy Rider, should you go with this 35th anniversary release or the original from 1999? Frankly, I think the latter should suffice unless you really want Hill’s book. The new DVD retails for about $30, where the old one goes for only $15. The CD songtrack is essentially useless, so the extra $15 really just goes toward the book. It’s a good one, but $15 for an 80-page text seems steep. I think the 1999 version is the best one for most people.
To rate this film, visit the Special Edition review of EASY RIDER