Actually the title is Heart b̷ Beat. I missed that detail. This is a big actor flick attempting to make a tale out of the story-less string of incidents that made up the lives of Jack Kerouac, played by John Heard, and his ne’er-do-well buddy Neal Cassady, played by Nick Nolte, as told by the woman who loved them or tried to at least–Carolyn Cassady, played by Sissy Spacek. There’s also an Alan Ginsberg character, but for some reason not called Ginsberg. It’s an informative film overall, and I’m especially empathetic to anyone having to deal with Neal (including Jack! who got abandoned by Neal more than once and who instantly forgave the lout for ditching him sick in Mexico).
Here’s the problem, however, the reason we’re interested in these bozos is because of On The Road, and the events of that book are already about a decade old by the time this story is rolling (it took a while to get it published). We do see Jack come home with a roll of paper to type on, and we see him trying to sell the draft (the famous “scroll”) which gets turned down at every corner. But we’re not really privy to much of that book’s itinerant and irreverent fun. Instead, as I mentioned, we’re mostly dealing with Carolyn’s prosaic disappointments. Sissy Spacek is gorgeous in the role, and these might be some of the best roles for all of these actors to loaf in.
A bit of history fun from Dan Wakefield who, in his lovely 1992 book New York In the Fifties (highly recommended), describes in detail the actual trajectory of Kerouac’s “landmark” book. In a nutshell, the daily book reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, a very conservative fellow by the name of Orville Prescott was on vacation. Instead, a staff writer for the Times by the name of Gilbert Millstein had reviewed it in such glowing terms that it landed squarely as the standard-bearer for the “beat generation” (that generation of people who could order a beer when WWII ended) and changed forever what was considered art, writing and artistic writing! In Millstein’s own words from Wakefield’s book: “I wasn’t looking for Kerouac’s novel beforehand I didn’t even know it was coming out.” and “When Prescott got back and read my review he was enraged. He hated the book. He even hated to look at it. That was the end of me in daily book reviewing for the Times.” You have to remember that it was a book that basically glorified loafing, weed-smoking, amphetamine snorting and wild Jazz parties coupled with sexual freedom. The establishment were bound to be unsympathetic.
So there you have it, Millstein made Kerouac. Kerouac apparently used to introduce Millstein as the man who “made” him. In the weeks following this review Kerouac was put through the media ringer, interviewed, photographed, adored and despised (probably a bit frustrating as the events described were all already a decade old!). This is the bit that Heart Beat deals with more than Kerouac’s On The Road. Kerouac is gone for a good bit, and Cassady struggles with being the family man. We know neither of these fellows lives very long. Vonnegut tells a sad tale of meeting Kerouac when Kerouac was “unknowable” a dilapidated drunk in the sixties. It’s a sad tale. He wouldn’t live to 1970. Cassady, younger than Jack by four years, would be dead in 1968, having inspired Jack’s Dean Moriarty and poetry by Ginsberg as well as participating in some of the wild goings on of trippy acid-head efforts inspired by Ken Kesey.
I’m trying to keep all that brief, though, I feel certain anyone interested in this film sort of necessarily understands who these people are and what they’re watching. Though, for the life of me, I’m not sure — even to this day — exactly what it is we’re involved in here. There’s something of a beautiful beebop jazz influence, there’s something of a “finding America” and the spirit of adventure, but when you read the material it’s mostly waxing poetic about drunkenness and beauty about music. These guys didn’t live long enough to be able to reflect on their lives or achievements (much like the whole 27 club of rock and roll), so it’s a bit of a disappointing hustle to try to work up films or deep thoughts about the experiences. The same way it’s rather impossible to really filter much out of the mess that was Brian Jones’s short life. Was there genius there, yes, was the resource used to its fullest potential, probably not. Is it possible to imagine a sober Kerouac writing into the 70s, 80s, and maybe beyond? After all he was the same age as Vonnegut who passed away in 2007. Mental exercise.
Here’s the deal, this particular movie is mostly about a friendship between three people that never quite goes right, but then, what kind of story is a friendship that does go satisfyingly well? Should I paraphrase Tolstoy here? Something about how happy families are all happy the same way, but unhappy ones are fascinating in their variety . . .
In the end of the film, the sense of your own life belonging to others and not to yourself comes through. Cassady is talking to young beatniks/hippies about being Kerouac’s inspiration for Moriarty, but he’s only half interested in what it is the young folks identify with. I suppose this is a bit like being Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and being lured into discussing punk rock one more time . . . I noticed an interview with one of the writers of the popular James Corey Expanse sci-fi novels when asked about how a particular ship’s engine worked simply replied “very well.”
This is Free on Prime, but probably only interesting to watch these actors working together 40 years ago! There’s a pretty remarkable modern version of On The Road, but it too struggles to find relevance to our condition much the same way reading Henry Miller’s great works really just comes across as ancient history (The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945) from an already middle-aged Miller. Offers much that On The Road plays footsie with, but is a more interesting synopsis of artists and interests. Other Miller works are about itinerant (on the road!) struggles finding enough to eat and dealing with shitty jobs.) though I’ve read them all with great enjoyment.