SFF: On the Road – Salles takes Kerouac for a spin

One great thing that this film version of On The Road did for me was get me onto excellent whiskey.  I must say, after watching the film the desire for one was intense.  Was it watching these youths swill it for two hours or the desire to forget these youths that switched me onto it?  I think it’s the former, but it is rather difficult to say.

Ok – confession time. I had a pretty good time in this film. Partly I think that was because my expectations were low. I don’t think poor old Walter can be solely blamed for the absolutely charismaless character portrayals. I think we have moved on from a generation where its hilarious to abandon your child and roguish to leave your best friend in a filthy Mexican hotel while they are suffering from dysentery. I adore Kerouac, and I really love his writing style, but even when I read On The Road for the first time I couldn’t shake the feeling that Moriarty was an asshole – and not in a good way. The Beat generation was essential.  We had to shake off the imposition of ideals of the industrialised world that were turning us into automatons and Bex swilling Stepford wives culminating in the devastating suburbs of 1950’s values. But we’ve also learnt that the shadow of “cool” is “vacuous stupidity” and the two go joyously hand in hand.

It’s interesting that this film comes out in the same year as the Luhrmann remake of Gatsby comes out and I can’t help seeing the two together. Unlike On The Road, Gatsby has been made many times over. Also, unlike On The Road, The Great Gatsby is critical of its era, making Fitzgerald very unpopular for writing it at the time and then more and more popular in generations to come who have the gift of 20/20 hindsight. For me this is part of the problem here. Kerouac adored his time period and any criticism is mere lip service. As we move further and further away from it, it looks more and more like misguided youths who – frankly – were a bunch of jerks.

The story goes Kerouac wanted Marlon Brando to play Dean Moriarty in a film version of his book opposite him (!) but when he approached Brando in a letter he never received a reply.   Years later Brando did actually agree to be in an adaptation of the book but (predictably) asked for such a large sum of money that Kerouac’s manager turned him down – something Kerouac never quite forgave his manager for. That sort of sums it up doesn’t it?  The SPIRIT of On The Road would turn Marlon Brando down.  The sycophantic nature of Kerouac for icons that represent something we suspect may never have actually existed wanted him and his fee in.

But I digress. We have a film before us.

I think part of the problem with this film is that it has just tried to stick to the book and not go a little deeper. This period in our human history is a wonderful example of Freud’s death drive – that compulsive spirit for life. Abandon to all but art, taking everything in as experience – there is an appeal in these theories and a universal that we can all relate to. Because the film simply tells the story we are left with characters that come across as white middle class brats. Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) had Kerouac follow him blindly, Ginsberg (played by Tom Sturridge ) desperately in love with him, and Burroughs open his door to him at any time. There had to be more to this man than petulance. He inspired some of the greatest art of this century, and we needed a little more than his endless bickering with his wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst) and his boring sulking every time the party ended. We needed charisma that exploded off the screen and a lot of leadership. Although there is a lot of praise for Garrett Hedlund and he is certainly very pretty, I don’t see he had the screen presence to move beyond our current day criticisms of Moriarty.  To be honest, following him around the country would become boring real fast.

Kristen Stewart looks the part as Marylou but again, she lacks the energy. Marylou was wild – Kristen Stewart is a little too introverted and inward looking as an actress to carry off such an “out there” character. She comes across as a bit of a victim, which is another shame, and a little too close to the likely reality that detracts from the spirit of the work.

Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) who is Kerouac is a more believable figure, hastily scrawling his notes on pieces of paper. For a literary baby like myself, there were some delightfully re-created moments. Kerouac sitting down to read Ginsberg’s first chap book (I got goosebumps), Kerouac threading the never-ending roll into his typewriter, everyone reading Swann’s Way, and wild dancing to Salt Peanuts.  These for me were the films highlights and gave me a thrill I didn’t expect.

Missing – way too missing from this film is the music. The music is there, but it is subjugated, stilled as if Salles didn’t know what to do with it. The scene where Marylou goes wild with Dean dancing to Salt Peanuts while great fun from the literary perspective just doesn’t carry the thrill and excitement of that brilliant music. Music was important to Kerouac. One of my all time favourite discs is called “Jazz of the Beat Generation” which is a selection of Kerouac’s favourite jazz pieces interspersed with his own writings read by himself on his thrill at the Beat generation. A similar style of thrash and throb was needed in this film. The music could have given us some more clues as to what these people were chasing and what they captured in their art. The music lives on and is still very compelling today. Bringing it to the foreground, adding it to almost every scene, would have given us the touch of romance we badly needed to make more of this cinema experience.

Despite all of the above, I had a good time. I do think a lot of that had to do with not expecting much, but still it is always fun to sink into that world – even if the scotch might have been a little watered down.