On the Road Makes US Debut at Mill Valley Film Festival

Sal and Dean

by Jerry Cimino

The silver screen has not always been kind to Jack Kerouac.  While there have been many exceptional documentary films made over the years, a really good feature film either about Kerouac, or based upon one of his works, has somehow eluded Hollywood.  Think The Beat Generation (1959) by Albert Zugsmith, The Subterraneans (1960) based upon Kerouac’s novel of the same name, or HeartBeat (1980) based upon Carolyn Cassady’s book, Off the Road.  All three of these films broke the hearts of Beat Generation fans the world over, to the point you’d be hard pressed to find a DVD copy of any of them anywhere—and for good reason.  A case could be made that the first two had a lot to do with why old Jack drank himself to death in 1969.  I jest, of course, but the joke is not far from the truth.

Given this history, the casual observer might understand why there’s been so much consternation among lifelong Kerouac fans about the making of On the Road into a feature film.  The film has literally been “in the works” since 1958, when legendary Hollywood producer Jerry Wald started a correspondence with Kerouac about a screen adaption of On the Road.  The two bounced many ideas off one another for quite a while, including the possibility of Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) dying at the end of the movie in a fiery car crash similar to what had recently occurred with James Dean. Jack rejected that idea by telling Wald, “In real life Dean can never crash, he’s too great and mystical a driver.” Jack did allow for an intentional crash, though, a sort of would-be suicide, so the audience could wonder whether the crash was accidental or deliberate. Needless to say this version of the movie was never made, and these original letters reside in the Berg Collection at the NY Public Library and have never been published.

So, with that background and legacy begins the story of why the making of On the Road into a film is such a personal story for legions of Kerouac fans.  At the Beat Museum in San Francisco, we’ve heard these concerns voiced by literally thousands of individuals for many years.  “No one can adapt On the Road into a film.  It can’t be done.”  “Kerouac’s writing style can never be successfully conveyed in a movie.”  “I won’t go see it.  I don’t want my heart broken again.”  “It shouldn’t even be attempted.  It’s a sacred text.”  “I’ve had my own personal version of this movie playing in my mind for twenty years.  I don’t want anyone else to mess with that.”

But attempted it was.  In spades.  Francis Ford Coppola secured the rights to the film in the late 1970s.  He had eight scripts written over the years.  None of them worked for him.  Some of us took great solace in the fact that it was Coppola who was the steward of this project.  He just seemed to be the kind of filmmaker who wasn’t going to attempt the project until he knew he could do it well.  I believe all Beat fans owe Francis Coppola a debt of gratitude for having the discipline and awareness and brilliance to recognize that he did not personally possess the clarity of vision necessary to bring On the Road to the screen in a proper fashion and that, perhaps, another filmmaker did.  That’s confidence.  That’s surety of self. 

The filmmaker Coppola ultimately chose was Walter Salles, fresh off the success of The Motorcycle Diaries, which premiered at Sundance in January, 2004.  Salles had read the book as an 18-year-old in Brazil and, growing up under a military dictatorship, appreciated the concept of ‘freedom’ in a whole different way than we do here in the US.  Salles was intrigued by the project, but he too knew that he was not yet prepared to attempt to make the film.  So, he went on his own journey in search of America, in search of Kerouac’s voice, and his love affair with the country and the land he loved.  Salles was also searching for the characters that populated Kerouac’s novels—the people who were a part of his life.  He filmed his own documentary about it, “Searching for On the Road,” which I imagine will be released at a future date.

Everyone knows a  book is not a movie and a movie is not a book.  The genius of Jack’ Kerouac’s novels is his prose. It’s not the story, it’s not even the relationships, it’s the prose with the language that he uses to sketch the scene to move the story and to describe the relationships.  Jack could write like no one else before or since.  He invented an entire new way of writing that worked for him and called it “bop spontaneous prose.”  To convey the frenzy of Kerouac’s writing style on screen was the challenge Walter Salles took on.

The US version of On the Road weighs in at a brisk two hours and four minutes.  It is fast out of the gate and we’re deep into the story from the moment the film starts to roll.  We’re introduced to a magnificent group of players – household names like Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi and Kristen Stewart.  Amy Adams, Alice Braga, Elizabeth Moss, and Terrance Howard all receive prominent screen time and deliver terrific performances.  Rounding out the cast are the four boys of the story: Tom Sturridge (Allen Ginsberg/’Carlo Marx’), Danny Morgan (Al Hinkle/’Big Ed Dunkel’), Sam Riley (Jack Kerouac/’Sal Paradise’) and Garrett Hedlund (Neal Cassady/’Dean Moriarty’). Like Salles, many of these actors first read the book when they were teenagers.  Some of them, it is said, aggressively went after the roles for which they were cast.  Some of them took massive pay cuts to act in this film.

The true Kerouac fan is going to delight in the deep Beat Generation lore that is instantly on display in this work—the way Carlo and Dean sit nose to nose on a bed swearing undying allegiance to each other’s souls. Sal and Terry (Alice Braga) ending their love affair as they turn at a dozen paces…“for love is a duel.” The three famished visitors in the ’49 Hudson barging into Sal’s family Christmas in North Carolina where Danny Morgan steals the scene with his antics involving the turkey dinner.  The 1949 New Year’s Eve celebration that comes alive on the screen as the dingledodies “burn, burn, burn” singing and dancing and partying to the sound of “Salt Peanuts” and other tunes of the day.  The way the cops can smell “jailkid” attitude on Dean when the group is stopped for speeding and shaken down for the fine.  And Steve Buscemi at his creepy, lecherous best, about whom Dean quips, “Offer them what they secretly want and they panic.”

I truly love the international flavor of the film.  Many people think of On the Road as an American story, but it truly is a universal/everyman story and that feeling comes through in both Eric Gautier’s cinematography and Gustavo Santaolalla’s musical score.  On the surface they appear to be love songs to America, but they are really, like Kerouac’s words, love songs to Life.

Sturridge is remarkable as a young Allen Ginsberg, his “shining mind” coming forth.  The early relationship between he and Cassady is critical in helping us realize we are not witnessing two legends of The Beat Generation, but rather two young men discovering themselves and each other at the age of twenty.  Kirsten Dunst breaks your heart as the long suffering and aggrieved wife (Carolyn Cassady) staying home with the children while her ne’er do well husband lives life on his own terms. Viggo Mortensen is beyond convincing as William S. Burroughs (Old Bull Lee) fiddling with his guns, his works and his orgone accumulator.  And Kristen Stewart (LuAnne Henderson/’Marylou’) felt safe enough to break the mold from her previous work and take risks as an actor she’s never taken before—the wild child with a mind of her own – to the point her young fans from her previous work may be quite surprised. 

The one thing that really stood out for me is what an incredible job Garrett Hedlund did with the character of Neal Cassady.  His performance just leapt off the screen.  I remember the first time I met Garrett (back in 2007, when he first stopped into The Beat Museum to do some research) I said to him, “For a young actor, I’ve got to believe this is a career making role.”  He responded, “I know it is, and I’m determined to do it right.”  I truly believe Garrett lived up to that commitment to the point where, in my mind, he literally embodied Neal on that screen.  And, to tie a bow around that image, I was sitting with John Allen Cassady (Neal Cassady’s son) at the screening the other night and his comment as the film ended was, “For a guy who was born fifteen years after my dad died, Garrett sure did a terrific job of bringing him to life.” 

Some professional critics have pronounced the movie aimless and wandering, but in fact that’s the point. The book was accused of the same thing. The true fan knows that the story of On the Road is not to go from here to there and back again, but to take the inner journey of the soul. On the Road is a spiritual quest, a search for “kicks,” a search for “it” – however you define them. And in the end, when Sal meets Dean on the streets of New York—”ragged in his moth eaten overcoat” – Salles allows the audience to see the futility of the outward journey Dean has so desperately been traveling. On the Road is a cautionary tale designed to help us avoid the pitfalls of life, and Salles, like Kerouac before him, avoids making that point too boldly. Instead, they pull us into the story and the lives of the characters allowing us to make this discovery on our own.

I absolutely love the post-ending during the credit roll. As the screen goes black and we hear the voice of the real Jack Kerouac singing we see Garrett Hedlund walking along the railroad tracks with back to the camera. For those of us familiar with Neal Cassady’s story, it’s a foreshadowing of what we know must ultimately come in San Miguel de Allende years down the road when Neal ultimately dies along the railroad tracks in 1968.  It’s a very poignant post-conclusion to a very powerful work. A little bitter-sweet bonus the casual viewer or critic might never understand.

The true Kerouac fan is going to want to watch this film over and over.  There are so many secret moments to delight in you simply can’t assimilate them all in one viewing.  This is On the Road as it should be brought to the big screen and these film makers got it right.  Despite the fears and uncertainties and angst in the hearts of so many, this film not only works on every level—it shines.

To echo Gilbert Milstein’s book review from The New York Times September 5, 1957—“On the Road is a major film”—and fans are gonna love it.