sat 20/07/2024

On The Road | reviews, news & interviews

On The Road

On The Road

Sex, drugs and bebop: Walter Salles finally delivers Kerouac's novel to the big screen

A fine bromance? Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in 'On the Road'Gregory Smith

This week a holy relic has gone on show in the British Library. The continuous scroll of the original manuscript of On the Road is a kind of ur-artefact of the Beat Generation. Typed up by Jack Kerouac in three weeks in April 1951, and 120 feet long, it underpins a central myth of the Beats: that a tight-knit counter-cultural post-war generation of young American writers were powered by nothing but inspiration (plus of course pills, nicotine and booze).

They wrote the way jazzers performed - free-wheelingly, in the moment, without regard for the piffling orthodoxy of structure. Or as Kerouac's muse Dean Moriarty yells, “That tenorman has IT!”

Even if it’s not quite true – Kerouac’s heavily edited final draft took another six years to appear – the book still retains the looseness of that first furious outpouring. And now, more than 60 years on, with only a few of the Beat Generation’s substance-abusing coterie not summoned to an early grave, here comes Walter Salles’ film. From script to screen, the journey has been as long as the book's from scroll to hard covers. As Kristen Stewart tells theartsdesk, she was cast as a 16-year-old, On the Road was shot when she was 20. She’s now 22.

The choice has been taken to trowel on a voiceover, almost always an admission that the script needs a leg-up

It’s easy to see why On the Road has warned filmmakers off – there is of course no plot beyond Kerouac’s picaresque friendship with seductive drifter Neal Cassady (who becomes Dean Moriarty in the book). The periodic quest to find Cassady's lost father is no more than a Macguffin. That said, Kerouac’s serial crisscrossing of the American continent overlaps with one of the great cinematic genres, the road movie. This is a book (and a film) that loves landscape, that covers all weathers from parching heat to numbing snow, and invites you to ingest sex, drugs and bebop in pleasing quantities. Who else but the director of The Motorcycle Diaries to tame the beast?

Salles has been picking up a raspberry or two as On the Road has itself been out on the road. In remaining essentially faithful to the various trips undertaken by Sal Paradise (the name Kerouac gave his alter ego), the director and his scriptwriter Jose Rivera have certainly kept faith with the book’s prolixity. It doesn’t half go on a bit. By the time the two protagonists make their way down to Mexico for one final marijuana-fuelled session of wick-dipping in a rural whorehouse, they have long since outstayed their welcome.

And yet this is not quite the book as you know it. Salles and Rivera have taken the structurally defensible decision to make the scroll part of the narrative. So while Dean stumbles into New York from Denver in the late Forties eager to learn how to write, it is Sal (Sam Riley pictured right) we see making notes and, once the journeying is over, sellotaping together page after page of A4 so that he can embark on his Homeric testimony. Indeed, this is one of cinema's less hamfisted attempts to capture lightning and portray inspiration as it strikes. The more doubtful choice has been taken to trowel on a voiceover, almost always an admission that the script needs a leg-up. “I was a young writer, trying to take off,” intones a Methuselah-like Al Pacino, whom (and this doesn't help) we know to be far older than Kerouac was when he died. Perhaps that's why he's uncredited.

Another switch from the novel finds Sal lodging in New York with his mother rather than his aunt, and speaking French-Canadian patois known as Joual. It doesn’t quite tally with the Italian ethnicity Kerouac gave his alter ego, but hey. The film also has way more sex than ever made it into the book - not all of it hetero. The character of Carlo Marx (a heavily bearded Tom Sturridge), based on Allen Ginsberg, is overtly in love or least lust with Dean, who is not above pimping himself to a homosexual lech (Steve Buscemi) when he and Sal are in need of a free ride. Stewart, as Dean’s 16-year-old bride Marylou, is first glimpsed through a door in a bed and spends quite a bit of the rest of the movie there or thereabouts: in an aborted ménage à trois incorporating Sal, jacking off her two pals in the front seat, beatifically mounting Dean (Garrett Hedlund). She takes to it all impressively. Kirsten Dunst as other squeeze Camille fares less well. Being mother to the child of the definitively unreliable Dean, she is in and out all too briefly and doesn’t get to have much fun.

How much fun you yourself will have with the film comes down to your taste for the Dionysian company of Dean Moriarty. In that sense the fidelity to the book is total. “My mind is a veritable echo chamber of epiphanies,” Hedlund (pictured left) hollers without irony, and if that’s your kind of trip, good luck to you. Hedlund has some of the reckless pomposity, but he’s not funny enough, not catastrophic enough, and ultimately just too damn straight-up-and-down cute. Sam Riley as the watchful Sal is just fine.

There are other good turns here. Elisabeth Moss as Galatea, the jilted bride of the lunky Beat hanger-on Ed Dunkel, feels like a comic visitor from the real world of Fifties America with its ties and responsibilities. Viggo Mortensen is a strangely grounded Old Bull Lee, the William Burroughs-alike they visit in Louisiana. But will these vignettes make sense to those who don’t know the book? Certainly Sal’s brief dalliance with Alice Braga’s Mexican piccaninny in the Californian cotton fields seems just too abrupt here.

It’s finally the problem of film itself, which pins you to your seat for two-plus hours, that there is no turning off from the relentless trip that is this On the Road. As threesome follows threesome, the parties to end all parties come and go, the Beats drive and drive like the clappers across the great American emptiness (lovingly roved over by cinematographer Eric Gautier), you may well need to be in an altered state of mind not to want to get off. There's also an industrial supply of bromantic hugging. It's a valiant facsimile with more energy that soul. That’s why the scroll took three weeks to type, but six years to appear in print.

Follow Jasper Rees on Twitter

Overleaf: images from the British Library's On the Road exhibition 


Kerouac’s serial crisscrossing of the American continent overlaps with one of the great cinematic genres, the road movie


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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