The first thing you should know about What Happened to Kerouac? is that the film is not really going to answer its own question. The second thing is that this is a documentary by the faithful, for the faithful.
Neither of these qualities is necessarily a negative, so long as each is taken into account when approaching the film. Just don’t expect a hard-hitting film that even slightly questions the literary importance of Jack Kerouac or other Beat Generation figures. That’s not what this fascinating but sometimes maddening film is about. The documentary is the work of people who want to celebrate their hero, and as such, the film often tells as much about its makers as it does about its subject.
This is especially notable in the way the film bends over backwards to avoid discussing Kerouac’s sexuality. It seems that not even one of the film’s interview subjects, which include William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, fails to remark on what a “beautiful” or “handsome” man Kerouac was. One interviewee does directly refer to Kerouac’s “problems with his sexuality,” but the film isn’t really going there, and it becomes hard to avoid suspecting that the filmmakers aren’t comfortable with the subject.
But as an introduction to Kerouac and the Beats, the film is excellent, not in the least because it candidly captures so many members of that movement. These people provide a fascinating look at Kerouac and the Beats that’s of more than passing importance.
Just as fine is the amazing archival footage of Kerouac in appearances on The Steve Allen Show and William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. The appearances are separated by nine years, but it seems more like 100, considering the changes Kerouac manifests in the latter show. In part, this is also due to the difference in tone between the two TV programs.
The 1959 appearance on the Allen show — where Kerouac plugged the recently published On the Road — finds the author with a sympathetic host. Allen, the genial culture vulture, of course manages to accompany Kerouac’s readings with his own jazz-piano improvisations. Buckley, however, is not sympathetic (when was he anything other than condescendingly superior?), and is only interested in using Kerouac as a bludgeoning tool against the hippie movement. That should have been easy, since the Beats in general didn’t care to be linked to the hippies.
Buckley, however, is so full of himself that he comes off worse than his target. Of course, it doesn’t help that Kerouac is rather obviously drunk and in an argumentative mood. The footage is startling in its picture of how far downhill he’s gone in a relatively short time. Kerouac himself makes a humorous reference to his decline, remarking that he was recently arrested “for decaying.” It’s a scene that’s part and parcel of what makes this a documentary that’s well worth seeing.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Shows one time only at the Fine Arts Theatre, Thursday, Jan. 27 at 9:30 p.m.]