I first read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in 1995, and it started me on a series of treks across the US, one by Greyhound bus, one solo by car. Kerouac’s generation-defining novel has been analyzed for decades and I won’t attempt to add to that here. It is surprising how long it took for a film version to emerge (although there was one unsuccessful version called Heart Beat with Nick Nolte). Walter Salles’s version was therefore welcome, and one I resolved to own, not just rent. The main problem with this version, starring Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, a surprisingly effective Kirsten Stewart, and Viggo Mortenson as Old Bull Lee, is that it’s more like an overlong music video than a film. Indeed, I prefer to use it as background while I read the book.
The film starts and ends with Kerouac’s famous lines. It begins:
the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it … I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.
But in between, one gets a sense that his wanderings were indeed aimless.
While I’ve never been one who believes the way an actor looks should determine casting, Kerouac and, by extension, Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) are so iconic at this point that its hard to believe one is watching them in the film. In the age of You Tube, even the way they speak has historical traction.
Hedlund, however, does have Moriarty/Cassady “feel” to him. He mimics the hyperactivity that one sees in the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test Cassady. The “mad” lifestyle of the beatniks is not entirely glorified here, though their youth disguises its effects – the film takes place in the 1940s, long before Kerouac’s rise to prominence in 1957 with the success of On the Road. While Dean Moriarty’s relationships-gone-bad and children without a real father are shown, Kerouac’s own life paralleled his friend’s. Jan Kerouac’s depiction of her traumatic childhood shows that Kerouac was also leaving children behind for the sake of his travels and alcohol. The latter left him dead at 46.
One thing the movie gets right is the sense of the importance of jazz for the beats. Terrence Howard lends some cool to the roadhouse jazz and party scenes that made the beats, as William S. Boroughs famously said “the source” of the entire counterculture that followed in the 60s.