The Best Beat Generation Movies


Beat Generation legend Jack Kerouac would have been 94 today. The pioneering writer, best known for the novel On the Road, captured the public’s fear and fascination with rebellious youth. The post-World War II era in literature gave rise to a sexual liberation, spiritual awakening, and era of experimentation that was prime material for the movies as well. Here are some of the better films influenced by the real-life Beats — several starring and made by the icons themselves. Add your personal favorites, below.

Naked Lunch

A Beat legend seen through the visceral, schizoid lens of David Cronenberg. “Burroughs inhabits the madhouse of his mind, and as he is addressed by bugs and phantoms and the specter of his murdered wife, the most horrifying thing of all is that he reacts in the same detached, cold way,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1992 review. “All except for a moment of grief he permits himself over her dead body. One suspects he could have cried out with the same rage and hurt all of his life.” Peter Weller’s haunting portrayal is worthy of Cronenberg’s surreal canon.

Next Stop, Greenwich Village

Brooklyn-born director Paul Mazursky started his career as an actor in Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, Fear and Desire (1953). That period in his life became the inspiration for an autobiographical account of his time amongst the thriving Greenwich Village scene. Look for an appearance by Bill Murray in his first film role (with no lines), as well as early appearances by Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Walken.

Pull My Daisy

The New York Times on Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s 1959 short (both filmmakers scenesters in their own right). The name is taken from a poem of the same name written by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady:

If On the Road was the bible of the Beat Generation, the film “Pull My Daisy” was a kind of short breviary. With a voice-over narration by Jack Kerouac and the manic participation of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and others, it takes the more or less formal setting of a social call and tears it into shreds. . . . This is Dada: maximum shock with a minimum of pain; the feeling that stones could be hurled through windows and nothing would really break. Like Dada from the nastier perspective of the late nineteen-twenties, it seems innocent and touching.

A Bucket of Blood

King of the Bs Roger Corman directed this 1959 comedy, starring Gremlins icon Dick Miller as an unwitting busboy turned art star of the Bohemian set who goes on a murder spree to maintain his newfound reputation. Little Shop of Horrors scribe Charles B. Griffith wrote the film.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

From Slant Magazine on the William S. Burroughs doc featuring interviews with a who’s who of the counterculture elite:

Yony Leyser’s documentary William Burroughs: A Man Within knows when and how to use its subject’s distinctive voice; some of the best footage here features Burroughs drawling out vacuous but intoxicatingly enunciated musings on love, art, and death while breaking bread with Andy Warhol. These curiously off-the-cuff interviews are interspersed with talking heads from the periphery of the Beats’ circle and their legion of descendants, including Laurie Anderson, Genesis P-Orridge, David Cronenberg, Iggy Pop, Thurston Moore (who provides some music), and John Waters. These rabid admirers frustratingly only alight on Burroughs’s literary significance when speaking in terms of personal influence, some of which is mired in rather petty textual interpretation. (Due to its formalistic intensity and satirical tone, Naked Lunch has never been comfortably read as a gay catharsis.) But as they worm their way through the brown, mealy apple of Burroughs’s career, flecks of despondency are dislodged that piquantly contextualize the pain in the author’s voice.

Heart Beat

Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, and John Heard do their best Beat trio, portraying the relationship between Neal Cassady, Carolyn Cassady, and Jack Kerouac. The film is based on the memoir of the same name (written by Carolyn Cassidy). From Time Out:

A minor (low budget) gem, with Nolte ambling ruefully through twenty years of the American Dream as Neal Cassady, the superman-hero-hobo-lover of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Based on the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady (who is played with calm brilliance by Spacek), the movie centres on her triangular life with two men, warily sidestepping the hype and narcissism of Beat mythology and the parallel temptation to indulge in an essay on Literary Genius. Instead, out of an episodic narrative emerges a quiet contemplation of the vast spaces and suburban dreams of the postwar period, a glowingly designed, occasionally tacky epic of America from the Bomb to the Pill.

Love Always, Carolyn

For DVD Talk, our own Jason Bailey writes about the 2011 documentary on Carolyn Cassady, which shows another side of the oft romanticized generation:

She finds correspondence from Neal, and reads some of it before shuffling it away: “Why would I want to keep reminding myself of that horrible time?” she asks. And there certainly were horrible times. Neal was, as she diplomatically puts it, “a complicated guy,” and it was he who instigated the triangle between the married couple and Kerouac. She was far from promiscuous; molested by her older brother at a shockingly young age, she all but shut down sexually. That’s a big thing to talk about on camera, but that’s how close the film gets to its subject; later, as she visits her children in Denver, Ramström and Korkeasalo’s cameras capture the family being courted by another crew of filmmakers, hoping to make a documentary about the Beats. The family is all for it, mainly because the filmmakers are explaining how it could make them all some money. (Her son is cheerfully opportunist, yet also realistic about keeping her interests at heart–and keeping her financially stable). But Carolyn isn’t interested in doing more interviews; “I have to keep saying the same things,” she objects. She wrote a memoir, Off the Road, in an attempt to put an end to all of it, but that, of course, never works. Television interviewers ask her questions about Neal and Jack; she advises them to read the book.

Me and My Brother

Robert Frank’s 1969 indie, starring Christopher Walken and Sam Shepard in their film debuts, documents the mental illness of Julius Orlovsky, the brother of Allen Ginsberg’s longtime partner Peter Orlovsky. From the New York Times:

[Frank’s] study of Julius Orlovsky, a catatonic schizophrenic; Julius’s brother, Peter; Allen Ginsberg, the noted, bearded, “beat” poet with whom they live, and other members of their uninhibited circle, has the shockingly revelatory attributes of a close-up view of the real-unreal world of the mentally disturbed. But an excess of imaginative effects, done equally with professionalism and with genuine compassion for his friends, tends to confuse and detract from the photographer-director-writer’s dissections of sanity and insanity.

This Ain’t Bebop

Harvey Keitel as a Jack Kerouac type, directed by Brooklyn’s own Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat). From the LA Times’ 1989 review:

“This Ain’t Bebop” is, in a way, another nostalgia piece about the ’50s. But this is nostalgia for the buried ’50s: of the beat or counter-culture figures such as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, James Dean and splatter-painter Jackson Pollock. Brooklynite Bakshi follows an aging would-be hipster (Harvey Keitel) on his barren rounds through the pool halls and streets, looking for action and sex, juxtaposed with his memories of a ’50s youth, and the self-destructive idols whose gestalt haunts him. Sinuous Miles Davis-style jazz threads under the action; “This Ain’t Bebop” itself is an apocryphal remark attributed to Cassady as he collapses on the railroad tracks before his death. Though Keitel’s presence reminds us of Martin Scorsese’s mean street ethos, Bakshi shows style and personality all his own. His first totally live-action effort suggests others should follow.