On The Road – film review

On The Road
Directed by Walter Salles
Released 12th October 2012

Jack Kerouac’s cult novel On The Road defined the beat generation of ’50s America. Walter Salles big screen adaptation, has a strong cast and some quirky cinematography to make it a flick worth catching. 

Brazilian director Walter Salles’ admirable film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical 1957 classic novel, On The Road, a book that played such a major part in defining the so called 1950s ”ËœBeat Generation’ and the subsequent ”Ëœyouth’ movements of the 1960s and 1970s, is as good a movie as could possibly be made from the writer’s volatile and highly intimidating source material.

Salles has managed to capture the youthful vigour of Kerouac’s book (written six years before its publication), while sticking, perhaps to a fault, pretty closely to the author’s elliptical narrative relating wanderlust, sex, drugs and self-revelation while crisscrossing the continent of America during the late 1940s. Salles’ approach to On The Road is perhaps preferable to David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ equally ”Ëœunfilmable’ 1959 Beat novel, The Naked Lunch, which drew more upon Ted Morgan’s 1988 Burroughs biography, The Literary Outlaw, than the novel itself.

Since it was published, Kerouac’s road trip odyssey across the USA and into Mexico was commonly considered to be impossible to film. Executive producer Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to the novel in 1978, and the property has passed through countless writers and directors hands since.

Kerouac actually solicited Marlon Brando to lead a motion picture adaptation in the late 1950s, an epoch when the whole societal and ethical ambience, not to mention the strictly censored film industry of the period, would hardly have readily sanctioned the type of film, featuring nudity, ”Ëœintemperate’ language and drug taking, that has finally materialized more than fifty years later.

Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera, who previously made the 2004 Che Guevara road movie saga The Motorcycle Diaries, portray Kerouac’s reminiscences of post-war America in a vivacious, contemporary fashion.

A nervy film grammar, comprising Eric Gautier’s quicksilver handheld cinematography (which luxuriates in the splendour of the American landscape flashing by and the film’s notable 1940s restorations) recurrent jump cuts and a driving jazz influenced score by Gustavo Santaolalla (together with choice period source music) that breaks out at in frequent intervals (brilliant double bassist Charlie Haden, a key player with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s quartet, is featured in Santaolalla’s soundtrack) are all deployed, mostly successfully, in an attempt replicate Kerouac’s agitated text. In the manner of the Beat ethos of perpetual creative improvisation, Rivera’s script unavoidably truncates many of the novel’s happenings and integrates passages from Kerouac’s Selected Letters: 1940-59 for the purpose of character development.

On The Road – film review

Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Kerouac’s alter ego, an aspirant French-Canadian writer living in 1947 Queens, New York, mourns his father’s recent death. Not long after the funeral, Sal meets the striking Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a womanising, bisexual, pot smoking, Benzedrine taking, philosophizing car thief and ex-jail bird, based upon Kerouac’s Beat idol, the handsome but ultimately doomed Neal Cassady, who provides On The Road’s unrestrained and alluring pivotal personage.

Dean Moriarty is the unstoppable force at the centre of an apparently everlasting Bacchanalian revelry, cherished by his extremely temperamental young wife, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), and desired by gifted young poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), Kerouac’s delineation of Allen Ginsberg. Quickly wielding a significant influence over Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty beseeches his new comrade to hook up with him in Denver.

Hitchhiking his way to Denver, Sal Paradise finds Dean Moriarty shacking up with not only Marylou but also with elegant blonde Camille (Kirsten Dunst). Dean Moriarty moves between the two women, confounding matters even further by attempting to cajole Sal Paradise into three way lovemaking sessions with Marylou.

A road trip to New Orleans introduces Sal Paradise’s morphine-addicted guru Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen), Kerouac’s portrait of arguably the greatest Beat of them all, William S. Burroughs, and his crazed wife (Amy Adams), before mishaps ensue in San Francisco, New York and finally Mexico, leading to Paradise writing about his experiences on an interminable roll of paper.

The casting of the English Sam Riley as Sal Paradise/ Kerouac is an interesting choice, in such an American milieu, as Sal is really an observer, an outsider always somewhat apart from the action, even when he is in the thick of it. Yet Riley tends to get a bit lost within the picture, dominated by such a strong supporting cast.

Viggo Mortensen simply is William S. Burroughs; if there is ever a Burroughs biopic, the casting agent should look no further than the incredible Mortensen. Both Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst really excel as the effervescent but ultimately beaten down women in Moriarty’s erratic, epicurean orbit, while the great Steve Buscemi gives an amusing cameo as a frustrated travelling salesman.

On The Road – film review

Yet it is ultimately, and predictably, Hedlund’s performance that dominates On The Road. Hedlund imposes a disarming, man-child character trait to the totally impulsive Dean Moriarty. Though impelled by a zealous, even raging compulsion, Hedlund manages to illicit sympathy for Moriarty’s woefully negligent and irresponsible behaviour ”“ Moriarty even abandons his heavily pregnant wife to go to an admittedly swinging Slim Gaillard gig with Paradise.

Hedlund’s obvious empathy for Moriarty is probably more than Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera were willing to grant, but stays true to the time and the quest for an illusive freedom within the pages of Kerouac’s novel. His turn in On The Road confirms that Hedlund is undoubtedly going to become a major star.

Walter Salles’ 2012 vision of On The Road is certainly a trip worth taking.

All words by Ian Johnston. You can read more from Ian on LTW here.

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  1. I can’t wait to see this, read all his books. This film has been in the making for about 10 years. Jack Kerouac is an inspiration to generations, not just the Beat Generation.


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