Film

'Big Sur' Brings Kerouac to the Screen with Fury and Force

Michael Polish's adaptation of Jack Kerouac's novel is a perfect example of how a flowing, Beat classic can be transcribed to the screen with its spirit intact.


Big Sur

Director: Michael Polish
Cast: Jean-Marc Barr, Josh Lucas, Radha Mitchell, Kate Bosworth, Anthony Edwards
Distributor: ARC
Rated: R
Release date: 2014-01-14
"And I realize the unbearable anguish of insanity: how uninformed people can be thinking insane people are 'happy', O God, in fact it was Irwin Garden once warned me not to think the madhouses are full of 'happy nuts'."

-- Jack Kerouac, Big Sur

If Jack Kerouac's 1957 masterpiece On the Road defined and exalted the Beat Generation, his 1962 novel Big Sur held this generation up for a not-always-gentle appraisal of its complicated desires and shortcomings. It's a quiet, difficult novel that had never been adapted for film prior to Michael Polish's 2013 effort. Though it has largely underwhelmed audiences, Polish's take on Kerouac features the kind of ephemeral, inexplicable tone that distinguished the writer as a true innovator. Big Sur is a perfect example of how a flowing, Beat classic can be transcribed to the screen with its spirit intact.

Like his novels, Big Sur is a movie that is both about Jack Kerouac and not. In the film, Polish has done away with Kerouac's pretense to call his lead character Jack Duluoz. Instead, we meet a middle-aged Kerouac (Jean-Marc Barr) who escapes to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's (Anthony Edwards) cabin in Big Sur to try and ground himself. Cinematographer M. David Mullen helps us get lost in Kerouac's Big Sur via static, wide shots of the forests and shoreline near the cabin. It's an idyllic world that is at once wonderfully beautiful and just a little boring.

The viewer needn't despair, though, because we can tell from Kerouac's voiceover during our introduction to the cabin in Big Sur that it's unlikely he'll be able to resist the pull of the city for long. Sure enough, he spends only a few weeks alone in Big Sur before he returns to San Francisco to party with his old Beat friends. When he journeys outside of the city with a group of friends, we meet Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas), one of Kerouac's oldest friends and his hitchhiking buddy from his On the Road days. We also meet the beautiful Carolyn (Radha Mitchell), Cassady's wife, and Billie (Kate Bosworth), his mistress.

Relationships are central to Big Sur, and Polish has done a stellar job of playing his cast together to create dynamic, rich pairings. Kerouac and Carolyn share a tender moment in the Cassady's kitchen that seems unmatchable until Cassady introduces his old friend and his mistress. Billie and Kerouac become fast lovers, and the on-screen chemistry between Barr and Bosworth is perhaps the very best thing about the film. Each tender, angry, nuanced moment is narrated by Kerouac so that we hear it from his angle. But these scenes tend to be shot from the perspective of Billie, reasserting the importance of this relationship to the arc of the film.

Quickly worn down by the city, Kerouac, Cassady, Carolyn and Billie head back to the cabin at Big Sur with Ferlinghetti and a few of his friends. In one scene from the trip, where Neal Cassady takes an ax to a log and Kerouac narrates, we're treated to the raw, emotional power of the Beat hero's writing. Here Polish has done an exceptional job of translating a lyrical text to the screen. Of course, not everything can be so beautiful as Kerouac's words. Debating the direction of life and poetry together every evening might have seemed like the perfect escape, but we begin to see the strain appear in the terse way Bosworth's Billie turns away from Kerouac in bed and in the increasingly detached manner with which he treats her (and everyone else).

As the sojourn at the cabin winds down, we watch Kerouac and his friends prepare to leave. They debate what they'll do with their lives, what poems must be written, who is going with whom. The Beat poet, though, sits in a chair outside the cabin and muses to himself, just as he does in the novel, "on soft Spring nights I'll stand in the yard under the stars -- Something good will come out of all things yet -- And it will be golden and eternal just like that -- There's no need to say another word." It's the best possible conclusion for Michael's Polish's rich, slow-burning portrait of the enigmatic Kerouac. Big Sur might not find converts among a wide audience, but it's a perfect treat for fans of American literature and the raw Beat spirit.

The DVD release of Big Sur includes no special features, which is a shame. For example, it would be enlightening for viewers to hear Polish talk more about the process of adapting Kerouac's work for the screen.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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