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No need to revise the standard view of Kerouac as a tragic figure, to ignore the surfeit of drink that diluted a writer's talent. Whether he liked it or not, Kerouac was the front man for the "Beat Generation"—a marketer's wet dream of pointy beards, berets and septic (and overpriced) coffeehouses.
Less well-known than the famous thirst is Kerouac's achievement at being an ESL writer, as he was French-speaking until deep into his childhood Happily, the film emphasizes the serious prose apprenticeship, the love for Thomas Wolfe and Marcel Proust, which proceeded Kerouac's scatting and bopping in print.
Kerouac's grim side was worsened by the idea that "the wrong son died," as the running joke in the movie Walk Hard had it. He was haunted by his brother's death at an early age. He was a born-again Buddhist who never shook the old-school Catholic worship of (in his words) "little lamby Jesus."
He dwelt in the shadow of his bigoted French-Canadian mother, a woman as tough as the army boots she used to make in the factory. Kerouac was a football player who dropped out, a macho with a taste for bisexual experimentation.
He was above all, a sufferer of the typical malaise of Depression-era kids who went into the arts: the inner terror that he was, despite all the admiration and all the love, at bottom, a bum. The movie mentions Paradise's father scorning him on his deathbed for having uncalloused hands.
On The Road covers a small period in the late 1940s when Kerouac crisscrossed the United States by thumb, or more often by bus, or drive-away rental: New York/Bay Area/Mexico City via Denver and New Orleans. These were the freest years in Kerouac's life, before mad fame, the final crash and the sodden last decade in Florida.
Via phone, Salles says, "You know, this was ultimately an eight-year search. We interviewed the persons who inspired the characters in the book in San Jose and Los Gatos, [including] several members of the Neal Cassady family. And we met with Al Hinkle, who is Ed Dunkel in the book.
"This in-depth research process allowed us to understand the complexity, the social and cultural background of the book. The late 1940s and early 1950s were very hard times to live. A generation was seeking to redefine their future. The book is at once an ode to freedom, an ode to youth, and an ode to literature."
From the start, this version of On the Road added biographical behavior to Kerouac's fictional surrogates, Salles says.
"Yes—we were so informed of the real stories that we were able to somehow improvise their logic. The book is so rich and polyphonic that you can actually select the leitmotifs.
"This is a narrative about the transitional years from youth to adulthood. You also have to face pain, and we wanted that to be part of the film."
Before the filming, Hedlund came to the South Bay to talk to some of the survivors who remember the real men and women behind the fictional alter egos.
It was "a wonderful experience," says the 28-year-old actor. First in Montreal, which doubled for post-war New York City, Hedlund went through what he described as "Beatnik Boot Camp," reading and listening to tapes of LuAnne Henderson and Jack and Neal Cassady.