Starring: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst
Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel was considered “unfilmable”, but that hasn’t stopped director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) from giving it his best shot. The result is surprisingly satisfying. Salles manages to retain the spirits of the Beat Generation’s most iconic tome without being overly reverential. And while the script and performances are stellar, it’s the soundtrack that made this such an enjoyable experience.
Producer Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to On The Road more than 30 years ago and has been trying to make the thing ever since. Persistence has paid off and Walter Salles seems to be the right man for the job. Indeed his 2004 version of The Motorcycle Diaries almost seems like a screen test for On The Road. Salles has used DOP Eric Gautier, who also worked his magic on The Motorcycle Diaries and gives On The Road a similar, burnt-orange hue to the proceedings.
On The Road is set in the late 1940s and early 50s and as such is a beautiful period piece. The cars look fabulous, the clothing and buildings exquisite and the music is pumping. Post-war America was feeling its oats and the air is filled with the sound of Be-Bop, Jump Blues, Jazz and Country & Western. The soundtrack is full of the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Slim Gaillard, Ella Fitzgerald and Son House.
Of course the story, such as it is, revolves around aspiring writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), based on Kerouac himself and his friend Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a stand-in for Neal Cassady, and their adventures as they traverse the US littered with sex, drugs and beat poetry.
Also on hand are Carol Marx (Tom Sturridge) otherwise known as the young Allen Ginsberg, Dean’s over-sexed teenage wife Marylou (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) and Kirsten Dunst as Cassady’s, or Dean’s second wife Camille.
Then there are the cameos…look for Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Madmen’s Elizabeth Moss and Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (aka William Burroughs).
Sal is smitten with his friend Dean who seems to be living life to its fullest…drinking, smoking, ingesting and screwing everything that comes his way. But of course this behaviour can only last so long and eventually Dean winds up as a narcissistic burn-out who seems to be oblivious to everyone’s feelings but his own. His wife Camille, mother of his children, gets the worst of it, and Dunst is excellent in the scene in which she tosses Moriarty out of the house.
Sal too, finally comes to grips with Dean and who he has become, giving the final quarter of the film a certain bittersweet edge and revealing the origins of the novel from which the film is based.
Critics have complained that the film is aimless and too ramshackle, but that is the nature of the subject matter and it seems ridiculous to complain if the film follows the same template. Others wanted this to be a film about the writing of On The Road…perhaps that’s another film for another day.
My main complaint would be with the casting of Garrett Hedland as Moriarty. I’m just not sure that he gives off the charisma needed for the role. Others have raved about him, so there you go. The rest of the cast, especially Stewart and Dunst, who are given the toughest parts, are very good.
And the best thing about On The Road is, if you don’t like what’s on the screen, just close your eyes and bop along to the swingin’ jive of Slim Gaillard’s Yep Roc Heresay and Dizzy’s Salt Peanuts. My foot was tapping from start to finish.