I Like the 'On The Road' Film and I Don't Care Who Knows It
Myself as a virgin 16-year-old.
I read On the Road when I was 16. I had barely hit puberty, dressed like a confused skater and had never had sex. Nonetheless, I found myself with ten other likely lads on a post-GCSE beers ‘n’ birds holiday in Tenerife. The music was shit, the beers were watered down and the birds weren’t interested. I went to a strip club for the first (and only) time there. One of the dancers told me she’d fuck me for £50 and I, like the virgin I was, spluttered something about finding a cashpoint before escaping to the toilet to jerk off. In short, I was a class act.
That night, slumped in the bathroom of our self-catering holiday prison flat, I began On the Road. To the 16-year-old me, it was exciting and vital. It reminded me that drinking purple shots to a Club Classics soundtrack on a Spanish island given over to the ancient art of ripping off paralytic Brits wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life. It made me realise that, even though most of the lads would bully me for it, it was OK to be a bit pretentious. I wasn’t planning on howling spoken word poetry at the grey dawn but I thought a little jazz flute might be interesting. Perhaps I’d buy a typewriter. (I didn’t buy a typewriter. I’m not that awful.)
Looking at On the Road now, it can be hard not to feel a little awkward about how excited I was by it. It seems embarrassing, over-zealous and, in parts, simply fucking ridiculous. This is partly because the beat thing's been parodied so much by now. We’ve all laughed knowingly about being “mad to live” and patrolling the “Negro streets at dawn”. I mean, come on Al no one says “Negro” any more, you friendly, excitable racist! It wasn’t just parodied, it was copied too. Kerouac had managed to do something that, while not exactly new, caused a sensation and was genuinely counter-cultural. But it’s 2012 now, not 1957, so the challenge that the film version had was to capture the energy and voice of Kerouac without making the audience cringe at all the “happenings” and “kicks”. It’s a challenge that’s eluded filmmakers and Alpha male leading men for decades.
Walter Salles is the director charged with this task. You know who he is, he made Motorcycle Diaries, which is basically just a film about a strange man riding his bike around in the countryside, so you know he was gonna be able to pull off the gentle, in-motion road shot soundtracked by sparse guitar music "thing".
Playing Sal, Sam Riley, former singer in Leeds band 10,000 Things. When I lived in Leeds, 10,000 Things were one of the bands to watch and Sam was the town Casanova. He didn’t know who I was (although I was trying to steal his guitarist’s girlfriend) but waiting for a drink at the bar one night, he turned to me and said, “Do you think if I quote the bargirl some of my lyrics we’ll get served?” Which lyrics, I wondered? “Eating’s not cheating”? Or “I think I need titanium boxer shorts / I just can’t cope with all these dirty thoughts”? Sam was a great performer, though (having more groupies than anyone else in the UK at the time is a sort of testament to that) and he’s now a good actor.
Of course, as a 16-year-old, I imagined I was Sal. I’m sure most teenage readers did. We always imagine we’re the outsider looking on, even if we’re the insider dancing sweatily in the middle of an enormous group. I was surprised by how the film, and Riley, managed to re-awaken that feeling. A tall, handsome Englishman was no one’s idea of the small, American Kerouac’s alter-ego but the people who work themselves into a fury over those details are the people who correct the Elf languages in Lord of the Rings films.
The other good thing about the film is that it’s been saved from all the A-list bros who wanted to play Kerouac and the Hollywood studio executives who pretended they’d heard of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and quoted Allen Ginsberg while secretly dreaming of all the awesome tie-in deals they could do with Levi’s and Chevrolet. It was a carnival of stupidity and thank God it's over and now they can all go back to planning their trashing of JD Salinger.
The rest of the cast are great. Highlights include Aragorn playing William Burroughs and Peggy from Mad Men shouting at a fat guy about how irresponsible Dean Moriarty, the book’s hero figure, has made him. I always imagined Dean, the all-consuming id, the tragic inspiration to those around him, to be a wild, dark-haired whirlwind but the blonder Garret Hedlund makes a physical, charismatic impression and you totally believe that he gets laid A LOT (which he does, in the film, including with Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart). Hedlund’s Dean is the flame the moths gather around but of course he’s a doomed figure, and after bouncing from crazy but happy, to crazy but suicidal, he ends up at the latter and his distance from Sal, his distance from anything resembling normality, is genuinely upsetting.
I’ll admit that this film version is not stacked full of moments that thrill but it still took me back to that godforsaken Canary Island, to the brothel strip club and mainly to the bathroom and the book, the bathroom I remember being locked in by the lads one afternoon for being irritating and pretentious. But there’s nothing wrong with a bit of pretension and there’s nothing wrong with dreaming the grand artistic dream, or whatever Jack would have said.
On the Road – the film as well as the book – tells the story of a time when that kind of thing was dangerous and threatening as opposed to just a source of amusement and mockery. It hasn’t been particularly well reviewed elsewhere, but that’s because most critics think they know how this film should have been made and most subscribe to the “it’s a book that just can’t be filmed” school of thought. As it is, it’s not so bad, and when I came out of the screening room I almost felt mad for kicks, I almost felt mad for life. So tell me, do jazz clubs still exist?
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
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