And the Beat Goes On: The Best Movies About the Beatnik Generation
The Beat Movement not only broke new ground in literature, it also marked the start of sweeping changes in society. So if you want to “be cool, man”—screen these ten flicks that deftly capture the era.
1. Big Sur
That talented Michael Polish (Northfork) offers a credible adaptation of Kerouac’s follow-up to On the Road, but saw his movie disappear all too quickly. Big Sur captured the creative despair the author felt when faced with coming up with a new work after the unprecedented success of his genereation-defining novel. Polish’s adaptation jettison’s the pseudonyms of the novel’s characters in favor of the names of the actual people, led by Jack Kerouac and Dean Moriarty.
James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in this fascinating account of the scandal that broke around the publication of the poet’s celebrated poem, which eventually led to an obscenity trial. Like Kill Your Darlings, this flick’s a tasteful rendering of the era, but directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman keep the drama pulsing, helped in no small part by Franco’s charismatic star turn and Jon Hamm’s supporting role as an attorney.
3. Kill Your Darlings
Daniel Radcliffe moves further away from Hogwarts, playing Beat poet and Howl author Allen Ginsberg. (Or, as the National Enquirer would probably put it: “Harry Potter in Gay Sex Shocker.”) But the real star is Dane Dehann—he excels as original wild boy and academic’s muse, Lucien Carr. John Krokidas’ film perfectly captures the era and features Ben Hopkins, in fine form, as William Burroughs.
4. Magic Trip
Any doubts over how crazy Neal Cassidy really was are dispelled in this hugely entertaining account of the infamous journey of Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters on a bus across America in 1964. Based on Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the movie is comprised of archive footage with voiceovers from some of the pranksters who undertook the journey. Cassidy joined the band along the way and showed that no one was more “out there” than he was.
5. On the Road
Countless directors have wanted to shoot the novel that defined the Beat movement, including Francis Ford Coppola, who held the rights to the book since 1979 (and here acts as executive producer). However, Brazilian director Walter Salles is the one who finally brought Jack Kerouac’s novel to the screen. Like Diaries, it’s a visually seductive, scenic film, as we cross from the East to West Coast and down to Mexico in the company of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. Garrett Hedlund as Moriarty is both a revelation and the main reason to see this tasteful if conservative adaptation.
6. Pull My Daisy
If the Beats defined an era in words, Robert Frank gave us the imagery to accompany them—his 1958 collection of photos The Americans revolutionized contemporary photography. Pull My Daisy is all about a dinner party hosted by Neal Cassidy. Directed by Frank, along with Alfred Leslie, this one features members of the movement. A minor addition to this list but utterly authentic.
The movie that kick-started American independent cinema, gave us a New York that few people had ever seen, introduced many to the music of Charles Mingus and showed that John Cassavetes wasn’t just a pretty-boy actor. Do you need any other reason to see this classic? If you do, take note: Shadows is also a riveting, angry commentary on race. The movie’s not Cassavetes’ best but it did set the template for the semi-improvisational dramas that the writer-director-actor would produce over the next 25 year.
8. The Connection
The first feature by the director of The Cool World and A Portrait of Jason is based on Jack Gelber’s play and unfolds in an attic apartment in NYC. Told almost in real-time, this period piece revolves around a group of junkie jazz musicians and acts a critical commentary on Cinema Vérité. The movie also played a key role in overturning New York State’s draconian censorship rules. Like many of the Beat-themed films of the ’60s, The Connection‘s dialogue might seem cliched now, but there’s no denying the stunning musicianship.
9. Naked Lunch
If you watch one drug-fueled, bug-infested, scifi-horror-trippy-cum-visionary movie this week, choose David Cronenberg’s bizarre and bonkers take on Burrough’s book. Peter Weller plays Burrough’s fictional alter-ego, a bug exterminator whose personal consumption of cockroach-killing powder leads him on a mind-expanding journey. The story, however, is mostly inconsequential. What matters is the visceral imagery Cronenberg throws at you.
10. The Subterraneans
The Eisenhower years hang over this mainstream Kerouac adaptation, as Hollywood attempts to “get down” with the kids and the beatniks but ends up with a square’s view of the era. So why is The Subterraneans on this list? For one reason only: the music. A host of jazz musicians, headlined by Gerry Mulligan, appear and the resulting soundtrack is one of the best, in terms of jazz, that Hollywood ever produced.