Judge Gordon Sullivan thought Kerouac was a miracle biofuel.
"Shows us what happened when fame and notoriety were thrust upon an essentially reticent man."
The title of What Happened to Kerouac? poses an interesting question. The answer, of course, is actually pretty simple and barely worth a documentary: after the fame and fortune that was bestowed on the king of the Beats because of the success of On the Road, Kerouac retreated from the spotlight into a bottle. Though he continued to write, Kerouac's output diminished, and eventually he died from complications due to extensive liver damage. Of course, the answer is fairly simple, but the story has reached epic proportions, thanks to the conflation of myth and mystery surrounding the arch-Beat. 1986 was the perfect year to revisit that myth. With the high tide of the Reagan era in full view, many saw the 1950s as a companion period. The Beats were the counterculture response to the buttoned-down tone of the fifties, so returning to their myth in the eighties made sense. This PBS documentary explores the Beat movement through its fountainhead Jack Kerouac, assembling a who's-who of Beat-related poets, writers, and cultural figures to tell the tale of their fallen idol. Twenty-five years later, with On the Road finally making its way to the big screen, What Happened to Kerouac? is an interesting document of both the Beat movement and that era of PBS productions.
What Happened to Kerouac? covers the span of the writers life, from his early days in Lowell, Massachusetts, to the success of On the Road to his untimely death from alcohol-related complications. The documentary focuses on interviewing his friends and fellow travelers (from Gregory Corso to William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg) or presenting us with the man himself in various TV clips and appearances. Kerouac was one of the first writers to come to national prominence in the era of ubiquitous TV and cheap(er) documentation technologies (like portable tape machines). We therefore have a wealth of information that What Happened to Kerouac? uses to build a portrait of the King of the Beats.
Put simply, this DVD edition of What Happened to Kerouac? is a treasure for any fans of the Beat movement or Kerouac in particular. To be perfectly honest, I've always found Kerouac to be the least interesting of those writers associated with the Beat movement. His heroic-man-against-the-system myth never did much for me, and I'm much more a fan of the experimental wing of the Beats (like Ginsberg and Burroughs). What's great about What Happened to Kerouac? is that it takes a very, very balanced approach to Kerouac and his myth. Though it doesn't engage in mudslinging or pointing out the numerous flaws in his character and myth (like the fact that his "independence" was funded by his mother), it also doesn't completely lionize its subject either, turning him into a larger-than-life hero.
Instead, What Happened to Kerouac? includes interview excerpts that speak to both sides of Kerouac's mercurial personality. Though the film does ultimately come down pretty positively on Kerouac (as any documentary on such an influential figure would almost two decades after his death), it's not entirely a love-fest. The filmmakers are willing to include excerpts from Kerouac's increasingly inebriated television appearances as he got closer and closer to imploding.
More importantly, though, the documentary focuses on Kerouac through other beat figures. The who's-who list of participants is impressive, and each of them is worthy of their own documentary. Figures like Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg are all heroes in their own right (and the latter two have arguably eclipsed Kerouac in fortune if not in fame). Hearing the stories directly from them is interesting in its own right (for filling in the gaps in their biographies) but also lends a certain veracity to the stories we've often heard about Kerouac and his circle.
That's also what sets this DVD version of What Happened to Kerouac? apart. In addition to the 96-minute documentary feature, we get 139 minutes of additional interviews and television excerpts. It's more of the same, of course, but that is precisely what makes it a treat for fans of Kerouac or any of the Beat or Beat-associated figures included. That's the only extra included, but it's such a doozy that there's no way to complain.
The DVD presentation itself is understandably bland. Shot by PBS on professional video in the mid-eighties, these images show their origin and age. For all that, though, colors appear to be accurate to that period on this disc, and there are no compression or authoring problems to speak of. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix is serviceable; there's a bit of hiss but the presentation is clear and easily audible. Subtitles would have been a nice touch, but they're hardly essential with a mix this good.
If you fall on one side or another in appreciating or demonizing Kerouac, this isn't the documentary for you. Though it's mostly positive, it's hardly the victory lap his most ardent admirers would want. However, it's also not the character assassination that would be all too easy given Kerouac's biography.
What Happened to Kerouac? is a worthwhile documentary for anyone looking for a televisual portrait of the Beat writer. The second disc of extra interviews and television pieces makes this essential for anyone interested in the Beat movement and its various authors.
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