'Easy Rider Live' at Radio City Music Hall Becomes a Tribute to Peter Fonda

Columbia Pictures/Photofest
'Easy Rider' (1969)

The 50th anniversary presentation of the classic film, featuring live musical performances by such original soundtracks artists as John Kay, Roger McGuinn and Peter Stampfel, celebrated the achievement of the film's producer, co-writer and star who died last month.

The presentation of Easy Rider Live at Radio City Music Hall was intended to be a celebration of the classic counterculture film upon its 50th anniversary. After the death last month of Peter Fonda at age 79, the evening, featuring live musical accompaniment, inevitably became a tribute to the film's producer, co-writer and star.

Fonda was originally supposed to introduce the film in person. Instead, that task fell to the event's producer, Peter Shapiro, who told the enthusiastic crowd that Fonda had wanted to do "something magical" to celebrate the iconic film's golden jubilee. He pointed out the venue's large screens on either side which displayed Fonda's Instagram post that included the cheer, "Easy Rider Live, Baby!" Parky Fonda, the late actor's wife, was also on hand, shouting, "On with the show!" There was a taped audio introduction by Fonda, in which he recalled envisioning, "This film is going to change everything. It's going to shake the cage." He also described how co-star Dennis Hopper was resistant to Jack Nicholson playing the role of the lawyer because the actor didn’t come from the South, and that he considered the most important line in the film to be, "No, Billy, we blew it."  

For fans of the 1969 film, it was an opportunity not only to see it presented in pristine form on the legendary theater's giant LED screen, but also to hear its classic soundtrack performed live. T Bone Burnett served as the musical director for the concert portion, presented in sync with the film, which featured John Kay, Roger McGuinn and Peter Stampfel. They each sang the songs they originally performed on the soundtrack, including Steppenwolf's "The Pusher," The Byrds' "Wasn't Born to Follow," The Holy Modal Rounders' "If You Want to be a Bird (Bird Song)" and McGuinn's solo versions of Bob Dylan's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding") and "Ballad of Easy Rider."

The biggest cheers came, naturally, for Kay's rendition of Steppenwolf's classic "Born to be Wild," accompanying the opening credits of stars Fonda and Hopper riding down the highway on their choppers.

Singer Nicole Atkins and guitarist Tash Neal were among the musicians performing such songs as The Band's "The Weight" and Jimi Hendrix's "If 6 Was 9," with Nash providing incendiary guitar solos. A trio of horn players and a drummer delivered "When the Saints Go Marching In" for the pic's Mardi Gras sequence, while the event was capped off by Kay performing another Steppenwolf hit, not performed on the soundtrack, "Magic Carpet Ride."

It all worked amazingly well, with the film not altered in any way, save for breaks allowing the musicians to perform extended versions of the songs. After the screening ended, the image on the massive screen was that of Fonda, wearing his Captain America jacket with an American flag on the back, taken from the original cover of the soundtrack LP.