Jack Kerouac King of the Beats

Umbrella Entertainment / Region 4

Review by Kit McFarlane

There’s still something mysterious about the Beats, the movement Jack Kerouac was such a key part of. Unlike the Hippie movement that they inadvertently paved the way for, the Beats were introspective, almost painfully self-aware, and too full of contradictions to create a simple cultural image.

Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats is full of intriguing footage and material, but it won’t necessarily fill in the gaps to really explain Kerouac and the Beats. Anyone unfamiliar with Kerouac, or other icons like Allen Ginsberg or William S. Burroughs, won’t come out of this documentary any more enlightened than they went in. The re-enacted footage is pretty uninspiring, and the narrative always seems to be skimming the surface, never really hitting a core.

But Kerouac’s life is interesting even out of context, and there’s plenty of great footage of Kerouac, stories of his early years, and interviews with his contemporaries to keep things moving. An interview with John Clellon Holmes is particularly good, giving a much needed description of Kerouac’s view of his age and the idea of the Beats as being stripped down to their essentials — all energy without poses.

So, this is hardly a definitive portrait of Kerouac or the Beats, but there are enough moments of interest to make it worth a look. Just don’t expect to learn much more than you already knew.

Perhaps the best part of this disc is the 8 minute extra of ‘Firing Line’, with a clearly drunk (but still interesting) Kerouac. Other extras include footage of the original scroll of ‘On the Road’ (it was typed onto a long roll of paper) with a short reading, and short clips from documentaries on William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.