"Kerouac" blends documentary and docudrama techniques to create a portrait of the writer who became the spokesman for the Beat Generation, but paints him as more easily explicable, less mysterious, than he was.
The movie aims at being for Kerouac what "Reds" was for John Reed. Director-producer John Antonelli intercuts interviews with Kerouac's contemporaries -- poets Allan Ginsberg and Michael McClure, novelists William Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes among them -- with staged re-creations of scenes from his novels, which we watch as narrator Peter Coyote reads.
This interplay of imagination and reportage mirrors Kerouac's own method, but Antonelli lacks the poetic strength of his subject, the genius that allowed Kerouac to unite these two strains. As Holmes accurately observes, Kerouac saw writing as a trade, like plumbing -- an attitude that was peculiarly American. But while the scenes from the novels, by treating Kerouac as a writer first and a personality second, have the virtue of seeing him the way he saw himself, the vignettes never seem anything besides stagy and unrealized. The movie never persuades you that the passages wouldn't be better simply read from the page.
The mood of "Kerouac" is elegiac, the scenes from the novels gauzy, the music (mostly old jazz) sweet with the ferment of an imagined past. This, too, comports with Kerouac's own mood, but his tendency to bathe his considerable memory in a romantic haze was decidedly a weakness. And what "Kerouac" misses about Kerouac's work is its reliable clarity and specificity.
Worse, this sentimentalization dampens what was vivid and important about him -- his embrace of danger. To writers, Kerouac stands for liberation, from the taboo on the expression of feeling that prevailed in his gray flannel times, and from the inhibiting dichotomy of fact and fiction. He is known, perhaps, not so much for what he accomplished as for the achievements of his heirs -- along with others, he was the father of the New Journalism, and of the relaxed, deep-breathing line that became possible in poetry.
Later in life Kerouac became an alcoholic, a victim of his own sensitivity and something of an embarrassment to his partisans and friends, gassing on about Communists to William Buckley shortly before his death. Antonelli wants to reduce him to that -- "Kerouac" becomes just another tale of an American burnout, no different from John Belushi or any other People magazine profile subject.
But nothing in Antonelli's documentary is as eloquent as the few moments in which Kerouac himself appears, in a tape from his guest spot on the Steve Allen show, his face liquid with wounded beauty, his voice soft with charm. (As one friend recalls, Kerouac was "a charmer, if there ever was one, without being aware of it.")
At the end of the movie, Antonelli returns to the clip, as Kerouac, in the timbre of Rod Steiger and the cadences of a Charlie Parker sax solo, reads a passage from "On the Road," his watershed book. Unlike Coyote's, which are precious and affected, Kerouac's inspired reading reveals his concept of "bop prosody" -- a synthesis of language and jazz -- as more than just a theory. If only for a moment, Kerouac's work lives in his own voice, vibrant and undeniable.
Kerouac, at the Inner Circle, is unrated and contains no offensive material.