Cast: William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Edie Kerouac Parker, Michael McClure, Joyce Johnson, Herbert Huncke
Director: John Antonelli
Release Date: February 28, 2012
Rating: Not Rated for Adult themes
Run Time: 01h:18m:00s
Genre(s): documentary, literature
"Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?" - Jack Kerouac, On the Road, Part 2, Ch. 3
Jack Kerouac - King of the Beats delves into the history and mythology of a unique figure in American and world literary history. With the jazz and stream of his consciousness, Kerouac brought to life a slice of the American psyche. This documentary uses a free-form style to present the many facets of this literary icon and succeeds in give us a fascinating impression. A good answer to the question, "Who is Jack Kerouac and why do so many people care about him?"
Movie Grade: B+
DVD Grade: B
The so-called Beat Generation was such a brief, ephemeral phenomenon, squeezed in between the post-War era of the late Forties and the Age of Aquarius hippie scene of the Sixties and overwhelmed by the common perception of the Fifties as an era of suburban drabness. Yet beneath that scrubbed veneer was a seething mass of experience, including drug use, homosexuality and rebellion, brought to expressive realization by Jack Kerouac and the other Beats, in prose and poetry, which represents one of the most significant American contributions to world art history. His writings have inspired other disparate writers as Ken Kesey, Bob Dylan, Thomas Pynchon, Jim Morrison, Lester Bangs, Tom Robbins, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe.
Yet, beyond the dates and places names, the Beat writers are elusive in being understood. One might wonder, does anyone really read Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs and, yes, Kerouac for pleasure? The idiosyncratic as art form, self-conscious stream of conscious drivel, in-jokes wrapped inside inside references that twirl into a self-fulfilling narcissism. On the Road is considered a seminal novel. James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake has been called the greatest novel that nobody has ever read. One might say the same about On the Road. Just kidding.
On the other hand, the idea of On the Road. The speed-rapping, jive-talking, quick-walking, wailing jazz life-style of free expression is the Helen of American Troy, the idea that launched a thousand new ships of rule-breaking, hand-waving iconoclasm. As usual, when watching a factual documentary about a figure that is mythologized, man surprising and often less than savory truths are revealed. Kerouac's difficult life was overly brief, dying at age 49. His friend Neal Cassady, who would be fictionalized as the protagonist of On the Road, Dean Moriarty, and many of works of Kerouac and other writers, would also die young at age 42. Apparently Kerouac only enjoyed a brief period of what could be called success, yet he did achieve the dream he had confided to the priest at his Catholic school as a child, "I want to be a writer."
This film by John Antonelli does a really good job of rising above the typical formulaic biographical documentary with a nice mix of interview, music, re-enactments, television appearances and readings. You do get a sense of the time and the imperfect, compelling figure that Kerouac was to his peers and ultimately the readers he inspired. A bit of footage of Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show reading while Allen noodles on the piano jazzily is quite entertaining.
A nice level of biographical suspense is maintained as we chronological follow his path from Lowell, Massachusetts to California and New York, and then finally, tragically back to Lowell. Born into a French-Canadian family and schooled in the parochial schools of the Catholic Church, Kerouac was a rebel in an era of class conformity. It was his skills as an athlete in teh game of football that helped him rise out of poverty and attend Columbia University. An injury forced him out out the game and he dropped out of school and began to meet the people and make the journeys that would create the real-life fodder of his fictional output. Nothing we learn of his life detracts from the work that Kerouac produced and endures on the shelves of used book stores across the America he travelled. If anything, Kerouac is as tragic a literary figure as has been listed in an anthology.
Peter Coyote narrates as On the Road, other Kerouac works such as Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, Dr. Sax and Visions of Gerard are examined, even if only briefly, with placement in the timeline and a reading. Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti both provide personal memories of Kerouac as well as brief literary critiques. Kerouac's wife Edie Kerouac Parker and other friends, such as poet Michael McClure, novelist Joyce Johnson, writer Herbert Huncke, fill out the story of the writer's life in a seminal time, creating seminal art. Also included are remarks by Kerouac biographer Ann Charters and Jazz historian Sam Charters.
There is a enduring image that emerges of Kerouac, who had written most of his novels before he was ever successful, working alone in a cheap room fueled by cheap booze and cheap speed, typing away at a roll of paper. It is this devotion to his art outside of consideration of friends, lovers and fans that is the hallmark of Kerouac and exemplifies the artistic narcissism of the Beats.
Extras - Listening to Kerouac read snippets of the On the Road is intriguing over a montage of shots of the original scroll that represents the typing of the novel in a continuous page. The scroll still exists and is owned by Jim Irsay owner of the Indianapolis Colts.
The outtakes from a Kerouac appearance on William F. Buckley's Firing Line are confusing. Kerouac is at turns disengaged, confused and oddly composed. He is drunk and makes little sense in try to engage in "repartee" with the host. Buckley is typically smarmy and unpleasant, the eternal quasi-intellectual ever in search of the false truth in his subject. In other words, he plies his trademark persona as defender of what he believes to be right and correct, intellectually..
Posted by: Jesse Shanks - March 10, 2012, 2:08 pm - DVD Review
Keywords: literature, biography