Kerouac, the Movie: The Brief Literary Life of Jack Kerouac, As Told By Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs & Friends

Some time ago, we brought you a 1968 episode of William F. Buck­ley Jr.’s Fir­ing Line, fea­tur­ing the aca­d­e­m­ic Lewis Yablon­sky, wild-haired poet Ed Sanders, and a seem­ing­ly drunk Jack Ker­ouac dis­cussing hip­pies. By this point, con­vinc­ing some­one that the bloat­ed Ker­ouac was the same man who penned beat main­stays such as On The Road and Doc­tor Sax would have been a tough task. Less than a year lat­er, he would die of alco­holism. View­ers unfa­mil­iar with Kerouac’s work would have undoubt­ed­ly labeled him a slop­py, solip­sis­tic drunk, like­ly miss­ing out on some of the 20th century’s most vivid Amer­i­can writ­ing.

As a cor­rec­tive mea­sure, we bring you John Antonelli’s Ker­ouac, the Movie (1985), which ren­ders the beat icon’s brief life into a short but nuanced doc­u­men­tary. Antonel­li begins with Ker­ouac as a child in Low­ell, Mass­a­chu­setts, already cer­tain of his future as a writer, and fol­lows him to Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, where Ker­ouac lands a foot­ball schol­ar­ship. As Kerouac’s friends and lovers recount his life sto­ry, it is not the author’s pen­chant for self-destruc­tive drink­ing that res­onates, but his will­ing­ness to bleed for his work. A shy, yet hand­some and effort­less­ly charm­ing young man, Ker­ouac drops out of Colum­bia once an injury pre­vents him from play­ing foot­ball, and spends his time read­ing, trav­el­ling, and work­ing menial jobs, all to write and find his voice.

Ker­ouac com­plet­ed On The Road, his major nov­el, in three weeks of unin­ter­rupt­ed labor on a sin­gle scroll of type­writ­ten paper dur­ing 1951. Or so the leg­end goes. For the next six years, he would attempt, with mount­ing despair, to pub­lish it. In 1952, he wrote to his friend and author John Clel­lon Holmes a hope­less, mis­er­able let­ter:

What have I got? I’m thir­ty years old, broke, my wife hates me and is try­ing to have me jailed. I have a daugh­ter I’ll nev­er see. My own moth­er, after all this time of work and wor­ry is still work­ing her ass off in a shoe shop. And I’ve not a cent in my pock­et for a decent whore. God­damn son of a bitch, some­times I think the only thing that’s ready to accept me is death. Noth­ing in life seems to want me or even remem­ber me. You know how I feel about this lousy life. Lyric epic nov­els aside, and all things, and my tal­ent, if any exists, I still know there’s noth­ing but doom and despair on all sides wait­ing for every­one, and espe­cial­ly for me who is all so alone. I’m the loneli­est writer in Amer­i­ca and I’ll tell you why – it’s because I have writ­ten exact­ly 3 full length nov­els since March 1951 or there­abouts and not one is want­ed now.”

This sense of bank­rupt­cy haunt­ed Ker­ouac until 1957, when Viking final­ly pub­lished On The Road. It became an overnight hit, com­pared by the New York Times to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Ris­es. While the tor­rent of finan­cial suc­cess val­i­dat­ed Kerouac’s career choice, many of his friends thought that it had also been respon­si­ble for drown­ing his sense of self. Over the years, friends such as poet Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti and artist Stan­ley Twar­dow­icz remem­ber his grow­ing despon­dence, cou­pled with a wors­en­ing drink­ing prob­lem. By the time Ker­ouac appeared on Buckley’s show, there was lit­tle of Ker­ouac left.

Find many more cul­tur­al doc­u­men­taries in our col­lec­tion of 625 Free Movies Online.

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William F. Buck­ley Meets (Pos­si­bly Drunk) Jack Ker­ouac, Tries to Make Sense of Hip­pies, 1968

Jack Ker­ouac’s Naval Reserve Enlist­ment Mugshot, 1943

Jack Ker­ouac Lists 9 Essen­tials for Writ­ing Spon­ta­neous Prose


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