October 13, 2016
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On The Road: Long Journey to Screen
by James Dalessandro
On the road with Garrett Hedlund as Cassady, Kristen Stewart as his girlfriend, and Kerouac, played by Sam Riley. photo: courtesy W. Salles
The counter-culture faithful—many who had survived the '60s to carve out a career in Bay Area film or publishing—were recently treated to a special screening of "On The Road" at the majestic Skywalker Ranch. Directed by the Brazilian Walter Salles ["Motorcycle Diaries", 2004] and produced by Francis Coppola, it stars Sam Riley as the Kerouac character, Garrett Hedlund as the famed drifter Neal Cassady, Kristen Stewart as his girlfriend and Viggo Mortensen and Tom Sturridge playing Burroughs and Ginsberg respectively.
Anyone with an affinity for, or curiosity about the American ‘Beat’ movement—as well as fans who avoid film projects based on theme park rides—will love "On the Road". Those who find the meandering, indulgent lives of Kerouac’s characters to be precisely that will not.
My interest was cinematic, literary and personal. Indeed, “On the Road”, along with Ginsberg’s “Howl”, inspired me to hitchhike to San Francisco in 1971 with the intent of being a writer. I was told I was a decade too late. Nevertheless, a visit to Ken Kesey’s farm in Oregon led to a lifelong friendship, and our co-founding of the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival, where we reunited Ginsberg and Burroughs.
Kesey also showed me home movies and told tales of Cassady, the hero of “On the Road” and the driver of Further, the famed bus that hauled Kesey’s Merry Pranksters across America in 1964 (see "
"). Not long after that, we read that Coppola had purchased the film rights to Kerouac’s opus. Well, it has finally arrived!
Coppola introduced himself, Salles and the film. As Coppola explained, although he owned the film rights for 30 years, he had never quite been able to get a handle on its rambling narrative, written by Kerouac in one take—from copious notes—on a large roll of white shelving paper. After seeing Salles and Rivera’s “Motorcycle Diaries,” Coppola decided they would be a good team to have a go in the ongoing saga of attempting to bring “On the Road” to the big screen.
Executive Producer Francis Ford Coppola, director Walter Salles and Coppola's son, filmmaker, Roman Coppola. photo: courtesy Skywalker
Several years ago, I was contacted by Rivera. Jose wanted to hear my stories of Ginsberg and Burroughs, and sought introductions to the publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and poet Michael McClure, with whom I had enduring friendships.
Salles added an emotional connection to the story: as a young man growing up under Brazil’s then military dictatorship, he had been profoundly affected by “On the Road,” stating that it had been a inspiration to his generation. And it was Coppola’s “Conversation” that had inspired him to be a filmmaker.
And then the film. Sam Riley, as Kerouac (I’ll stick to their real names, not the pseudonyms, Sal Paraiso, Dean Moriarty, etc of the novel), narrates his first encounter with Neal Cassady, whom he describes in the novel as “the Adonis of Denver.” The meeting is arranged by a young, handsome, aspiring poet Allen Ginsberg, wonderfully portrayed by Tom Sturridge as riddled equally with genius and self-doubt.
Almost instantly, Garrett Hedlund captures the muscular charisma and frenetic energy that were Cassady’s trademarks. Legendary for his amphetamine-fueled car driving exploits, his ability to steal cars, his seductive appeal to women—and men—Hedlund, Rivera and Salles give us Neal’s full range. He is exuberance personified, especially when dancing wildly with Kristin Stewart, who plays Cassidy’s rebellious, hedonistic girlfriend LuAnne Henderson.
Though it’s Kerouac’s novel, it is Cassady’s story. He’s a self-centered flake when abandoning the dysentery-stricken Kerouac in a cheap Mexican motel room, ostensibly for a family obligation in Denver. He’s a loving husband and father who splits in a moment’s notice from his wife—played with the charm, beauty and passion I saw in the real Carolyn when I befriended her briefly four decades ago—by Kirsten Dunst in one of the film's remarkable cameos.
The 35 cent Signet edition of 'On the Road' that inspired generations across the globe including in Brazil, as director Salles noted. photo: courtesy Signet
In one of the most powerful and revealing moments, Cassady tracks down Kerouac in New York shortly after Jack attained a fledgling literary notoriety and stability. But as often happens with those who offer authors vicarious thrills and literary fodder, it is now the wildman Cassady who desperately needs Kerouac.
If the finest acting is filmed thought—thinly veiled subtext, everything the actor is not saying—Hedlund’s face tells us everything. His eyes are sunken, his flesh drawn, his hair half mop, half grease slick. He’s lost everything. His charm has worn thin.
He tells Jack he loves him, misses him: an anxious plea for help. Neal needs a kind word, a hug, a meal, a place to sleep: recognition from Kerouac that it was Neal’s spontaneity and mad adventures that became the hallmark of Jack’s career. Jack ducks out to a waiting car, well-dressed friends and a Duke Ellington concert.
It is Neal’s story, but Jack’s Odyssey. Kerouac shoulders the pack in his own “rucksack nation,” crisscrossing the country by bus, rail and thumb, in blizzards and blistering heat.
Riley plays him with the quiet, detached optimism and the determination of a wanna-be writer who would quickly become disillusioned by his lack of financial success. Kerouac became emotionally dependent on his strong-willed mother, and so alcoholic he carried condiment bottles filled with alcohol.
We see Kerouac picking cotton in California, sharing a tent with a beautiful Mexican woman who would provide him with an indelible erotic memory—while her young son slept in the cot across from them—and writing, always writing: using a little hand sharpener to maintain the edge on his pencil, writing in the margins of small posters and handbills when he had filled up his small spiral notebook.
And though Carolyn is the woman with whom Neal is most associated—indeed, her son John was in attendance at the showing—the woman at the core of "On the Road" is LuAnne Henderson, the 16-year old runaway Denver girl who made the ideal Cassady companion and first wife.
The Kerouac character sees the 'Real West' for the first time with his close friend Cassady. photo: courtesy W. Salles
Kristen Stewart inhabits LuAnne with a fearless mixture of hedonism and doubt: alternating between loving Neal—and Jack, and occasionally Neal and Jack—while pining for her sailor fiancée back home. I knew little of Stewart’s work, having missed the "The Twilight" trilogy (2009-12) that made her famous, but her performance here is indelible.
The cameos are a who’s who of those who must love the work of Kerouac: Terence Howard as a jazz musician; Steve Buscemi as a gay old duffer who takes a liking to Cassady; Elizabeth Moss as jilted Helen Hinkle; Amy Adams as the whacky Joan Vollmer, the paramour/wife of Burroughs; and a personal favorite, Viggo Mortensen as surreal-speaking, gun-packing Burroughs, the true Godfather of the Beat movement and its most inventive, unfettered novelist.
And then there are screenwriter Jose Rivera and director Walter Salles. Rivera somehow managed the near impossible: trying not to structure the unstructured, or provide a clothesline of predictable dramatic escalation beyond what exists in the book.
No one has a clue where the hell they are going, other than towards Kerouac writing and Cassady escaping the bounds of society and the nightmares he created. They are just going: there lies the enduring charm of the book, and the film captures it well.
Salles has all the tools of a great director. He accomplishes much by a deft touch and sleight of hand: there is nothing heavy-handed or overbearing in anything he’s done, from the mesmerizing “Central Station” and the endearing “Motorcycle Diaries,” to this. He seems to turn his actor’s loose to inhabit the characters.
His visual style is remarkable: he captures Neal’s love of speed simply by allowing an old Buick to speed into the frame, fly down the road and disappear over a hill. We’re inside, we’re outside, shooting across a wheat field, fishtailing down an icy road, watching Jack freeze and sweat.
Salles shot in so many locations, the ending crawl was longer than the "Titanic"'s. He captures the clumsiness and freshness of every adventure, as with the awkwardness of the libertine Cassady and eager LuAnne talking Jack into joining them for a three-some.
In a post film interview, Garrett Hedlund further enchanted the audience by recounting how "On the Road" had inspired him while growing up in a Minnesota farming town of 2,500 people. After rattling off a list of other authors important to him, he recited every Kerouac novel he had studied for the part. He also found clues to Neal’s character in his memoir “The First Third.”
Kristen Steward echoed the sentiment with her love of Kerouac’s signature novel with her statement, “I would have done craft services to be in this film.” Admittedly fearful of the iconic project, she used that fear, and the will to overcome it, just as LuAnne Henderson must have when she went on an epic journey with two lunatics in search of an America that they helped craft.
And a final kudos to Francis Coppola, whose influence continues to spread, in no small part to his fine taste, humility and generosity.
It was a fine night, and a very fine film, made from a very fine book by people who love and understand what it takes to do it justice.
Posted on Dec 12, 2012 - 01:12 AM