Jack Kerouac‘s mythology often precedes him. It’s a lot to unravel, and everyone needs an entry point. Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats couldn’t be better for the job.
You’ll notice the famous voice from all those PBS Ken Burns documentaries (Peter Coyote) making the connections between Kerouac’s own words as his life is recounted from what he wrote in his, mostly-biographical, fiction. And even the Kerouac-like voice-over is fairly uncanny, if you’ve heard much of Kerouac’s unhurried, slightly accented, cadence.
With the movie’s short running time, it’s not long before we hear about him at Columbia University, meeting up with the famous names who would become the Beat Generation. William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Edie Parker, Carolyn Cassady and many others all make appearances to tell part of Kerouac’s story.
That story includes all the important parts of the myth. How he drew his style of writing from the sounds of Jazz. A touch of Lucien Carr‘s murder of David Kammerer, adequately fictionalized in 2013’s Kill Your Darlings and 2000’s Beat. Kerouac’s Benzedrine use as part of his writing regimen. And the travels that eventually became On the Road. And finally, seven years after he wrote it, to the publication and success of On the Road.
But at last, there’s nothing much except talk about his drinking. No voice-overs or re-enactments. Just interviews, because it might’ve been too harsh to hear some of these things from people who didn’t actually know him at that stage in his life.
There are some interesting tidbits for those well versed in the myths already, such as Burroughs commenting on the novel he co-wrote with Kerouac. The book, entitled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which has since been released, which he dismisses, saying “it wasn’t a very distinguished piece of work.”
There’s also Lawrence Ferlinghetti, straight faced and unimpressed, adding to the “Kerouac myth” by calling Kerouac “just another stumble bum on the scene…staggering about with a jug of wine in the audience” on the night that Ginsberg read “Howl” aloud.
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Throughout there is the grim reminder that, like Hunter Thompson, the public expected Jack Kerouac to be a character from his book. In Kerouac’s case, it was the wrong character.
Another captivating moment is seeing the sheer, honest concern on Ginsberg’s face, looking on from the audience as a drunken Kerouac talks to William Buckley on his show Firing Line, where he takes a swipe at his old friend once Buckley brings him up.
It’s a tragic story, and is so often viewed only through the myths, the reality of the individual behind the stories scrubbed clean, made fantastic. But Kerouac’s story unrolls here warts and all. And some great moments are found in all those interviews and archive materials, buried, even as they are, among all those myths.