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film review: on the road

The film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal book, On The Road has been a long time coming. Some 55 years since the semi-autobiographical novel was first published, audiences are now getting the chance to see the silver screen version. It comes courtesy of director, Walter Salles who is best known for bringing another coming-of-age, road story to light with The Motorcycle Diaries (2004).

The original story contained very detailed writing by Kerouac who is brilliant at stringing sentences together. It’s the sort of thing you want to either save for a later moment or etch into the side of a building to preserve for time immemorial. But this does not necessarily make it the best material for a film.

On The Road contains a lot of voiceovers where vivid and poetic quotes are delivered by the lead character, Sal Paradise – also known as Kerouac’s alter ego – and played by Sam Riley. Many keen eyed observers will see similarities between this character and Riley’s previous job of playing Ian Curtis in Control. Both subjects had a way with words and unlimited amounts of thoughtfulness and creativity.

Paradise is a fledging writer in New York who sees his luck change after meeting the larger-than-life character, Dean Moriarty (aka Neal Cassady played by Garrett Hedlund). Moriarty is on an insatiable quest for new experiences and experiments, meaning these are applied to form an intoxicating cocktail of sex, drugs, jazz and alcohol. His natural charisma makes him both a pretty boy leader and a pseudo-intellectual, with hangers on flocking like a moth to a flame.

Moriarty and Paradise embark on a series of road trips across America and at one point even sojourn off to Mexico, during a number of expeditions that took place at different points during the 1940s. Moriarty’s squeeze-of-the-day is Marlyou (Kristen Stewart) who is along for the wild ride while Moriarty’s first wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst) is stuck at home with a baby.

The trio’s journey on the road is a long one at over two hours but it remains faithful to the book. It is this meticulous attention to detail that makes the final product and pacing seem languid, and something that could only please the most ardent of Kerouac fans. It feels like a lost opportunity because the performances are top-notch.

Hedlund is extremely likeable and embodies the free-spirited Moriarty to a tee. Riley meanwhile is the observant writer drinking in almost every moment. The support cast also includes excellent – if short – cameos from Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen and Steve Buscemi.

The film boasts many great visuals of unspoilt parts of the American landscape and stays faithful to the time period thanks to an excellent soundtrack and choice of costumes. It ultimately looks and feels very cool and bohemian; even though the plot falters by being more focused on separate episodes and vignettes rather than presenting something that’s a cohesive whole. On The Road also manages to retain its intelligence but also keep things light, as there are many humorous moments and Kerouac’s silken writing often makes up for the distinct lack of overall action.

On The Road was practically a sacred text for the Beat Generation and would inspire artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, John Lennon, Jim Morrison and more. The original had such a big impact it would inspire people to trade on impulses by ditching their jobs, partners and possessions and take a similar trip through the wide-open road. In 2012 this is unlikely to happen off the back of this slow-burning film, but this ride still provides a good piece of escapism through its faithful recreations and signposts to the beat era.

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