Words by Yazen Al Samen
The Beat generation, like the Paris Avant-garde generation before it and the Woodstock generation after it, celebrated sex, drugs and Surrealism/Jazz/Rock’n Roll, and it had its leading documentarians.
The Avant-gardes’ had Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein and Picasso; the Woodstocks had Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Pete Townshend, and the Beats had Allen Ginsberg, William Seward Burroughs and of course, Jack Kerouac.
All of these intellectual movements had a familiarity between its members, where everybody knows everybody. Kerouac’s 1957 novel ‘On the Road’ is about that familiarity and fondness. It is about Sal, a young writer, Kerouac’s alter ego, who is struggling to finish a novel.
He meets a fellow called Dean, a young hipster, before hipster was hip, who has just married a sixteen year old girl, and the three of them begin a road trip that takes them from New York to Denver to San Francisco and eventually Mexico.
Walter Salles’ adaptation of the novel captures some of that energy and excitement, even if the movie feels passionless and at the end, with no real direction.
Sam Riley stars as Sal, the young troubled writer, in a nuanced, observant performance, serving as a guide to the film’s real star. Riley has such a calm, deep voice and his narration here is nostalgic, fond and it adds depth to the film.
Apart from the period settings and culture, the real find here is Garrett Hedlund, as Dean Moriarty. This is one of the performances of the year, probably Oscar-worthy, it is the sort of performance comparable with Jennifer Lawrence’s work in ‘Winter’s Bone’, a star making performance.
The film contains an all-star cast, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Tom Sturridge, Terrence Howard and Elizabeth Moss. At points you do wonder why so many big stars were needed in this, but anyway, this film remains a fascinating watch, simply because of the novel it was adapted from.