On the Road

Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart in On the Road


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 October



Jack Kerouac dies, 1969

On this day in 1969, the writer born Jean-Louis Kérouac died, from internal bleeding brought on by long-term alcohol abuse. He was the child of French Canadians and his first language was French, though he picked up English later and was fluent in his teenage years. He won a football scholarship to Columbia University, New York, but dropped out. There, in New York, he met Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs, among others, the core of the Beat Generation writers, the latest iteration of 20th century romantics. Discharged from war service in the Merchant Marine due to a “schizoid personality”, he set about writing in a style highly influenced by jazz, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that he started to make a name for himself, after the publication of The Town and the City. The work he is best remembered for these days, On the Road, started in French years before, followed. It was a semi-factual retelling of his travels with Neal Cassady and other Beats in the late 40s. Splurged out in semi-associative freeform recollection, the novel was typed out onto one continuous 120 foot (37 metre) long piece of paper, the better to catch the spontaneity that Kerouac craved (Truman Capote would later bitch, “That’s not writing, that’s typing”). On the Road struggled to get a publisher, because of its graphic drug scenes, sexual episodes, perceived amorality, and so on. Though Kerouac saw it as a book about Catholic guys looking for redemption. He wrote drafts of ten more novels while marrying and fleeing, travelling the USA, broke for the most part. In 1957 On the Road was published, Kerouac was proclaimed the voice of a generation, fame and fortune arrived, his previously unpublished works went into print, and Kerouac kept writing. And drinking. And writing. His post 1957 output includes Desolation Angels, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur and Vanity of Duluoz. All of his books remain in print.



On the Road (2011, dir: Walter Salles)

Taking his cue from Jack Kerouac’s jazz-flavoured prose style, Walter Salles goes for a loose improvisational adaptation of the Beat era’s most famous novel. Not everyone went a bundle on the casting – but of Sam Riley (as Jack Kerouac and his alter ego Sal Paradise), Garrett Hedlund (as Neal Cassady aka Dean Moriarty) and Kristen Stewart (as LuAnne Henderson aka Marylou), it’s only really Hedlund who seems slightly wrong, aiming for hipster cool and coming across a bit like a TV host. Stewart, internet trolls might be sad to hear, is excellent as the girlfriend of one guy who might well switch horses midstream, and catches that dangerous air of a girl who’ll do just about anything, and that includes going for the home and a baby. The plot is as freeform as the music it draws inspiration from, a series of long road trips in a big old Buick, kids lighting out to wherever – Chicago, San Francisco, Mexico. All the while Kirsten makes eyes she shouldn’t at Sam and Tom Sturridge (playing Allen Ginsberg) makes eyes at Garrett, who is adept at suggesting that while Neal/Dean might not be gay enough to go there too willingly, he is at least open to persuasion. It’s a prototype hippie journey, the Ken Kesey Magic Bus across America an entire generation earlier, when the doomy poverty of The Grapes of Wrath era still hung heavy and it was even more obvious that the sort of romantic liberation on offer was even more a man-only affair. If reality offered the biggest kicks to the men, the film provides an opportunity for female acting talent. Alongside the excellent Stewart, there’s Kirsten Dunst reminding us of how good she can be, and Amy Adams and Alice Braga are also worth spending time with. If the film lacks the fireworks that some people wanted from it, that’s partly because, like the book, it takes these people at their own self-aggrandising estimation of themselves. Plus the fact that, just by showing us the “liberation” project at one of its key mythic moments, it becomes all the more clear that this project has now run its course. And you can’t blame Kristen Stewart for that.



Why Watch?


  • Lots of great performances – Kirsten Dunst is particularly fine
  • Kerouac – inspiration for people from Bob Dylan to Katy Perry
  • Eric Gautier’s beautiful cinematography
  • Livewire jazz, from Charlie Parker, Slim Gaillard et al


© Steve Morrissey 2013



On the Road – at Amazon





25 February 2013-02-25

Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund in On the Road

DVD/Blu-rays out in the UK this week




On the Road (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation urtext about real gone cats discovering sex, drugs and fun in 1940s USA looks never less than sensational in director Walter Salles’s translation to the screen. Riffing experimentally like the jazz on the soundtrack, it’s Grapes of Wrath-y in tone, nostalgic, perfectly capturing its protagonists’ assessment of themselves (like, way cool). In doing so it holds a mirror up to our own miserable times, mourning the loss of the energy that such self-centred optimism unleashes. Kristen Stewart, though a long way from the lead character, makes more of an impression than either Sam Riley (Kerouac) or Garrett Hedlund (as Neil Moriarty) in a film of surprising nuance and depth.

On the Road – at Amazon



Rust and Bone (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A whale trainer takes up with a shady bouncer after a life-changing accident at the aquarium. The bare plot description for this French drama really doesn’t do it justice. Watch the first 20 minutes and marvel at how much ground director/co-writer Jacques Audiard covers in a potentially super-melodramatic tearjerker/life-affirmer that never goes for easy emotion. Instead we get depth, subtlety and even a bit of class politics in the shape of the “it’s always the little guy that gets hurt” story arc. The performances, by Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard are similarly economical and as spot-on as the writing and direction.

Rust and Bone – at Amazon



Premium Rush (Sony, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is chased all over New York by snarling super bad guy Michael Shannon. Why? It doesn’t matter. All that does matter is the JG-L is playing a cycle courier riding a fixie, whereas Shannon is a cop in a car, and that there’s enough stuntorama, cool slo-mo camera trickery and chronological back-and-forth to make this something like a latterday Run Lola Run on a Bike. Enjoyable and exciting if not quite the groundbreaker it possibly thinks it is.

Premium Rush – at Amazon



Killing Them Softly (EV, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Like his good lady wife, Brad Pitt has developed a terrible habit of just standing around in films while the director of the week polishes his ego. Here he’s a supercool Mr Fixit, a relation of Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction maybe, sent in to sort out the mess a couple of bozos have made while turning over a local gambling operation run by Ray Liotta. Waving a hand vaguely towards the current financial crisis – the gaming tables are like the financial markets and need to stay in motion, we’re told a couple of times – the screenplay makes the comparison only to immediately drop it. It’s symptomatic of a film that’s all pose and little punch, though fans of Pitt will adore the way he’s endlessly fetishised, leaving the decent acting to others – Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins and a standout small role for James Gandolfini, effortlessly great as a sweaty lush.

Killing Them Softly – at Amazon



Frankenweenie (Disney, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Tim Burton’s best film since Edward Scissorhands is a beautifully animated gothic (surprise surprise) remake of a short he made in 1984 and is about a boy bringing his dead pet dog back to life. It’s in black and white and is full of cinematic homage to 1930s monster movies – angry mobs, windmills, lightning storms – though it works well even if you have no idea who Peter Lorre or Boris Karloff are. It’s for kids, really – perhaps all Burton’s films are and he has yet to realise it – fast-paced, fun and yet thoughtful enough to gently introduce the notion of death to the young mind. I did say it was gothic.

Frankenweenie – at Amazon



McCullin (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

This is a great documentary about the London lad who became the best war photographer, a term he hates, of his era. McCullin’s hard-hitting, beautifully shot, high-contrast stills are used as punctuation to archive news footage from the 1960s and 1970s – much of it too shocking to be shown back then. Then there’s Don McCullin himself, eloquent, self-aware, analytical, self-critical and to some extent tortured both by what he’s seen and by how it changed him into “a war junkie”.

McCullin – at Amazon



Babette’s Feast (Artificial Eye, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

The Blu-ray debut of the 1987 drama – hands down the best film about food ever made – an almost erotic slow-tease about a Frenchwoman in puritanical Denmark who wins a small 19th century lottery and sets about converting the locals to her way of thinking via an extravagantly sumptuous banquet.

Babette’s Feast – at Amazon


© Steve Morrissey 2013