Title: On the Road
Director: Walter Salles (‘The Motorcycle Diaries’)
Like with many generations contending with the devastation of the aftermath of war, and struggling to redefine their place in society, the Beat Generation was no different in the late 1940s during the aftermath of World War II. Writer Jack Kerouac realistically and shockingly showed the liberation and experimentation of young adults during that time in his critically acclaimed 1957 novel, ‘On the Road.’ The book’s themes of the younger generation questioning taboos while fighting their inner struggles is emotionally shown in the new adventure drama film of the same name, which is set to start its limited theatrical release on Friday.
‘On the Road’ follows young New York City writer Sal Paradise (played by Sam Riley), whose life is ultimately redefined by the arrival of Dean Moriarty (portrayed by Garett Hedlund), a free-spirited, fearless Westerner. Dean and his girlfriend, Marylou (played by Kristen Stewart), are living a carefree style, and urge Sam to join them on a personal quest for freedom from the conformity and conservatism surrounding them. They travel across the country in search of themselves, through the use of drugs, jazz and poetry in the aftermath of World War II.
Along the way, the trio’s pursuit of the pure essence of experience is continuously shaped by their interactions with the people they meet along the way, including Camille (portrayed by Kirsten Dunst). Dean ultimately marries and has children with Camille, feeling that he should settle down, but still continues to live his care-free lifestyle with Marylou and Sal.
For the film, director Walter Salles assembled a talented, diverse young cast, particularly Riley and Hedlund, who had a natural chemistry together. The actors, who researched and rehearsed together for a month before filming began, read interviews about the people who the film’s characters are based on, and listened to the jazz music that influenced the Beat Generation following World War II, in order to get a clear understanding of the characters’ relationships. Hedlund emotionally played Dean as an instigator, who makes Sal genuinely question the ideals many young Americans held at the time, including the need to marry and start a family at a young age, and hold a respectable job. The actor emotionally represents Dean’s hesitance to start a family, as he hasn’t seen his own father since he was young. Riley, meanwhile, presented Sal as finding the social norm respectable, but changes his views once he meets Dean. He also comes to embrace the carefree, sexual, liberal freedoms that his new friend introduced to him.
The supporting characters in ‘On the Road,’ particularly Marylou and Camille, also give shocking, differing outlooks on women’s places in society as well. Stewart portrays Marylou as being a risque feminist before her time, who wishes to explore the sexual taboos in postwar America before settling down. While in some ways she wishes Dean would fully commit to her, she also embraces his adventurous side and longing to find the unknown across America. Dunst, contrastingly, plays Camille as the film’s mute heroine, who supports her two young children while her husband is on a quest for the unknown with Sal. While initially drawn to Dean’s carefree lifestyle, she continuously struggles with her love for him and doing what’s right for her family.
‘On the Road’s cinematographer, Eric Gautier, created realistic, heartfelt sets that truly represent the characters’ internal struggles on figuring out what to do next with their lives. With the American West truly settled and defined after the end of World War II, the true beginning of urban and suburban life throughout the country signaled the beginning of the end of the American dream of exploring and acquiring new land. But even with the end of the development of the physical road, and the establishment of the new American dream of settling into stable family life, Dean, Sam and Marylou are still interested in searching what’s unknown to them. From Sal working as an economically depressed laborer on a wide open farm in California to Dean and Sal stealing gas and food in run-down stations and markets while on the road, they learn to cope with whatever situation they’re in.
Since Kerouac was extremely knowledgeable about jazz music, and intimately mentioned music throughout his novel, the music of the generation soulfully influenced the actions of Sal and Dean in the film. Salles didn’t have much time prior to shooting the movie to create a soundtrack. So composer Gustavo Santaolalla worked with such musicians as Charlie Haden and Brian Blade, and Salles inserted the music into the film while editing. Not only did the music Santaolalla create captured Sal and Dean’s desire to live a carefree lifestyle, free of obligations and worry, but also their modern views on the world. Dean and Sal happily attended nightclubs frequented by African Americans, and embraced their happiness when performing, and dancing to, jazz music.
‘On the Road’ is a daring and insightful look into the surprisingly modern world Kerouac lived in during the late 1940s, after the end of War World II. Salles perfectly cast the characters in the adventure drama, especially Hedlund and Riley, who had natural chemistry together. Shown in part through beautiful choreography and against a soulful backdrop of jazz music, the two main actors genuinely question the ideals of many young Americans of the Beat Generation. The story genuinely features young adults ahead of their time, who weren’t afraid to question the taboos of their era.
Written by: Karen Benardello