On the Road Delivers!

For novices, aficionados, and those who lived it

by Jerry Cimino

In life, some things are worth waiting for. Case in point: the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel, On the Road.

On the Road premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, May 23, 2012. I had the opportunity to see a prescreening in Los Angeles a few days prior. It’s been a long and perilous journey for this movie—over thirty years in the making. Along the way, filmmakers and studios have come and gone, and major Hollywood actors have aged out of the parts. The reason Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt can no longer play the leads is because On the Road is a story about young people finding their way in the world—and today’s young people are going to love it.

This is a film that many have said could never be made, some saying it should have never even been attempted. There were so many constituencies to balance—the die-hard fans who have read the book twenty times or more and want to be sure all the subtlety and nuance is included; young people new to the story, who will be coming to see the movie because their favorite actor or actress is starring in it (possibly naked! …or so they have heard). Then there are the real-life people who lived it—those who are gone, and those who are still with us—whose stories are being told. On the Road honors them all.

Most of all, On the Road honors Jack Kerouac, and is true to his novel. Director Walter Salles has said on many occasions that his foremost intention was to be true to the book. His aim was for more people to read Kerouac. He has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. I went into the prescreening on Monday expecting I would like it. After all, I knew the reputations of the people involved, and I personally witnessed the passion and dedication of the cast and crew. But you never know what you’re going to see until you see it, and what I saw on Monday was nothing short of magnificent.

Purists will be elated. Subtleties and nuances from the book are seen throughout the film, sometimes in dramatic fashion, often with no mention or fanfare at all. Those familiar with Kerouac’s vivid imagery will immediately notice how director of photography Eric Gautier captures the golden glow of America and the breathing landscape of the lush, verdant hillsides. Thanks to a stirring score arranged by Gustavo Santaolalla, featuring classic bebop and jazz standards, as well as his own arrangements, the film moves along smoothly and fast, even at 2 hours and 17 minutes. There is never a dull moment, and no wondering where it will go. Those of us who have loved this novel for the greater part of our lives will recognize moments and dialogue and backstory that won’t be apparent to others, and those who are new to Kerouac will have the joy of experiencing a masterfully woven and terrific story with wonder and with fresh eyes. How could these people have been doing these things in 1948?

Yes, there is sex, yes there are drugs, yes there is jazz. Plenty of sex, plenty of drugs, plenty of jazz. Yet the purist knows the sex and drugs and music is simply the backdrop of the story—the landscape upon which the true themes of the story—quest for father, desire for family, search for “kicks,” and “IT” unfold.

The actors all hit their marks. The supporting cast of Tom Sturridge, Kirsten Dunst, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Elizabeth Moss, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen and Steve Buscemi—each has their own stand-out moment, as if they’re riffing their own solo in an ensemble.

Then there are the three leads: Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac), the witness and observer—it’s through his eyes the story is told. Kristen Stewart as Marylou (Luanne Henderson) in a role she was born to play. Her young fans are going to see her like they’ve never seen her before. Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady)—the guy who always wins, always gets the girl, and whom every young man wants to be—until you find out the price he’s had to pay to be who he is.

And then there’s the Hudson! Ah, that Hudson—it’s almost a character unto itself. “That Hudson just goes!” we hear numerous times in the film, and go! it does. The ’49 Hudson sounds like a rocket ship as it barrels down the highways of America. And so much of the story between the characters plays out in that car; the intimacy and the immediacy of their interactions. Just wait until you see what the characters are really doing as the three of them sit naked in the front seat… I howled with delight as the secret was revealed.

At The Beat Museum in San Francisco, we receive visitors from around the globe every day. Coming to North Beach is a kind of pilgrimage for fans of The Beat Generation. In the two months since the release of the movie trailer, I have personally met dozens of long time fans of the book who told me they literally cried upon viewing the trailer. I understood the sentiment. They had been carrying so much angst for so long, hoping against hope that when the movie was finally complete it would do their favorite book justice—and when they saw the trailer they suddenly realized their hope just might be realized.

Rest easy, my friends. If you’re like me, you are going to absolutely love this movie. These film makers got it right. They are kindred spirits in the story of The Beats. Kerouac fans will be proud.