On the Road, 140 mins, rated TBC opens 27 September 2012


(This is my review as published in the October 2012 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal).

In August, LSJ reviewed Cosmopolis, a road movie for the 21st century,  starring Robert Pattinson, from the Twilight series of vampire films. Releasing this month, is On the Road, a film featuring the Twilight co-star, Kristin Stewart. Based on Jack Kerouac's book, the film unfolds on the roads of North America at the end of the 1940s.

Kerouac's book introduced the world to the “Beat” generation – the postwar kids who loved jazz, wrote poetry, took drugs, had casual sex, and hit the road. The word “Beat” here does not derive from “beatnik”. According to Kerouac, it signifies “beaten” – a generation that was used, worn down, and in search of life’s meaning.

When the book was released (it was written in 1951 but only published in 1957) it divided readers and critics. The New York Times hailed it as "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named". But Truman Capote supposedly dismissed the book, saying: "That's not writing. That's typing."

The defining style of the book is its freewheeling prose – Kerouac typed it in a long scroll of individual sheets of paper that he’d taped together, and used no margins or paragraph breaks. The book’s style reflects the spontaneity of its characters, their youthful energy and emotions. Kerouac himself likened his writing to the work of Impressionist painters.

All of this amounts to a great challenge for filmmakers. Francis Ford Coppola held the film rights for 30 years before deciding on Brazillian Walter Salles to direct. He’d seen Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), a fictionalized version of the motorcycle trip that a young Che Guevara took through South America with a friend, and he thought that Salles could handle the picaresque nature of the adventures of Sal Paradise and his pal Dean Moriarty.

Salles prepared himself for filming by retracing Kerouac’s trip across North America, and Salles and his cinematographer Eric Gautier have produced a film whose widescreen photography celebrates the beauty of highways, fields, roads, bridges and homesteads from Canada to Mexico.

The script, by José Rivera retains the episodic structure of the book. Director Salles uses a jumpy, nervous style and a hip, lively jazz score to convey the youthful exuberance and restless nature of the protagonists’ search for meaning. They have taken  a chance, because the jumpiness could annoy the film’s older viewers, and the episodic style – and the film’s length at 137 minutes – could alienate younger viewers. However, people like me who love the book may feel that the filmmakers have achieved a delicate balance.

There’s another difficulty with On the Road: it’s autobiographical. So the lead character, Sal Paradise – Kerouac’s alter ego, a writer – is an observer rather than a protagonist. As played by Sam Riley (Control, 2007, Brighton Rock, 2010) he is essentially passive. Paradise’s pal, Dean Moriarty (a character based on the real person Neal Cassady), is the dynamic role. He’s played by the largely unknown Garrett Hedlund (Tron Legacy, 2010), who makes quite an impression as the over-sexed, hedonistic, womanizing ex-con who changes Sal Paradise’s life.

Kristin Stewart is luminous as Moriarty’s freethinking young wife, Marylou. The image of her sitting in the car wearing a striped t-shirt, with one foot up on the dashboard, stays in the mind as a symbol of youth and newfound freedom. Others in the cast that impress include an alarming Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (in real life William Burroughs), a transformed Amy Adams as Jane, his drugged-out wife (in real life Burroughs’ wife Joan Vollmer), and an elegant Kirsten Dunst as Camille, another wife of Moriarty (in real life Carolyn Cassady).

As you can see from all these names, the book operates on two levels: as a tale of a fictional journey, and as a record of the adventures of the real members of the Beat generation. The film and its stars add a third layer. It’s complicated. But if you can keep a handle on characters, this film has many rewards, not the least being its music score.

An early scene in a jazz joint is a case in point. Salles shoots impressionistically as Dean Moriarty dances with hedonistic abandon. Colours blend, the jazz is hot and the dancers are even hotter. Much the film itself, it's one hell of a ride.