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Musicians bring life to film about Kerouac's Big Sur trip

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"HOW many writers can write a book about having a nervous breakdown and make it this delight?"

Poet Aram Saroyan pretty much sums up this documentary about writer Jack Kerouac's authorship of Big Sur, a recounting of his California self-exile a few years after his unexpected coronation as "King of the Beats" in 1957.

The publication of On the Road made Kerouac an authentic celebrity. Fame combined with his square-jawed good looks brought multitudes to New York City to buy him drinks, tell him their stories, and, as Kerouac's girlfriend at the time complains, get him into bed.

So Kerouac took a train across the country to San Francisco where fellow beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti gave Kerouac directions to a remote, rustic cabin near the ocean in Big Sur where he could, as Ferlinghetti succinctly puts it, "dry out." There, among other misadventures, Kerouac did some demon wrestling, mainly with drink.

Director Curt Worden follows unsurprising documentary form by offering too many visuals of crashing waves in Big Sur and seamy bars in San Francisco, while a few witnesses offer their recollections of that period of Kerouac's life. Witnesses include Ferlinghetti and Carolyn Cassady, the woman who openly shared the beds of both Kerouac and her husband and Jack's best friend Neal Cassady. (Contrary to Kerouac's memoir, Carolyn insists, Jack chased her and not the other way around.)

Worden offers an interesting change-up however in his interview subjects, which include playwright Sam Shepard, musicians Dar Williams, Patti Smith and Tom Waits and actors Donal Logue and Amber Tamblyn.

Those latter two actors don't have any obvious reason for being there. They just happen to have a lot of screen charisma, and they approach the subject of Kerouac with the open enthusiasm of readers who came to the book decades after Kerouac died.

Yet it is the musicians who bring the subject alive. As pianist David Amram attests, Kerouac was intensely musical in his writing, and one's ears prick up when hard-living artists such as Waits and Smith weigh in on Kerouac's experiences with a kind of hard-won empathy. Dar Williams cries when reading a passage from the book, a succinct demonstration of its continuing power.

For most people, the option has always been read the book or see the movie. One Fast Move or I'm Gone is one movie that should compel you to read the book.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur

Directed by Curt Worden

Cinematheque

14A

3 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2010 D5

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