Monday, October 1, 2012

King of the Road: "Kerouac: The Movie" (1985)

The King of the Beats gets a rather standard documentary treatment, complete with badly done reenactments, but it is hard to screw up such a strong subject.

Filmed in the early 1980's, all the Beat writers and various hangers-on are trotted out to tell the story of the author of "On the Road," a novel that changed modern literature. Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922 and went to Columbia University on a football scholarship. He pounded out "On the Road" in three weeks, on a giant scroll of parchment paper. He eventually married a couple of times, had a daughter he was never close to, but always wrote...and drank.

When Kerouac's life finally seemed to be turning for the better (he was selling his novels), he had a small breakdown over the new found fame and turned to the bottle. He was up to a quart of hard liquor a day, moved back in with his mother, and died at the age of 47 in 1969.

The film makers utilize video of Kerouac on a couple of talk shows, and his transformation from the voice of the Beat generation on "The Steve Allen Show" to rambling angry drunk a few years later on "Firing Line with William F. Buckley" is sad to watch. What does not work here are the reenactments of Kerouac's life. Kerouac had a certain look that is hard to duplicate, although actor Jack Coulter certainly tries. The problem is the reenactments seem to have no budget, and early 1980's America does not stand in well for 1950's and 1960's America. At one point Kerouac is standing in front of a movie theater...showing "Amityville 3-D," a film that would make me drink a quart of liquor a day, too.

Peter Coyote narrates (sounding like Kevin Costner), and John Antonelli handles the directing chores. I will recommend the film because if you do not know Kerouac all that well, this is a safe place to start. "Kerouac" has been shown under a few other titles, and it stands as preeminent biography on its subject. As interest in the Beats resurfaces with talk of Johnny Depp doing a film version of "On the Road," you would think someone else would take another crack at a new documentary about this sad man. The DVD features a longer outtake reel from Buckley's show, where Kerouac is obviously drunk and embarrasses himself, the panel, and the audience.

"Kerouac" may have been a drunk, but the guy could describe a situation so vividly, you swear you were standing next to Dean Moriarty listening to be-bop jazz. (* * * *) out of five stars.