Jay Farrar, Ben Gibbard, and a bad actress pay tribute to Kerouac’s Big Sur

Jack Kerouac's writing has strong musical ties. Jazz musicians provided the beat for his words. There's great musicality to his phrasings. "A lot of musicians like him because he's a very musical writer," says Tom Waits in One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur, a new documentary about Kerouac and his autobiographical Big Sur novel. Waits adds that the lyrical descriptors Kerouac used — such as the "goop," the "gristle," and the "thistle" of a city — add to the writer's singsong vibe.

Big Sur contains honest revelations of a man going mad because the public wants a piece of him, but his demons still chase him as he escapes into solitude. Like many entertainers, Kerouac shows himself here to feel trapped in an image of his own making, torn up from the drinking it takes to keep up the facade, and nonetheless creating extraordinary art out of his conflicted circumstances. Few artists have expressed this condition of fame so vividly, and poetically, as in Big Sur.

Forty years after Kerouac's death, One Fast Move or I'm Gone and its accompanying soundtrack by Jay Farrar and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard are being released. The new multimedia Big Sur box set — comprising a copy of the book as well as the DVD and CD — tightens the bond between the iconic Beat writer and the generations of musicians he inspired. That connection will be further explored on a short tour by Farrar and Gibbard, who will perform their original Kerouac tunes in select cities (fittingly, their San Francisco performance will be at Bimbo's, in Kerouac's old North Beach stamping grounds).

One Fast Move or I'm Gone's soundtrack is the best interpretation of Big Sur in this set. Farrar and Gibbard trade off singing 12 songs with lyrics taken from the book, including lines from the poem "Sea" that closes the novel. Farrar admits to being intimidated at first to use Kerouac as his lyricist, until he settled into a stream-of-consciousness songwriting style. "One thing that allowed me to really get into the spirit of Kerouac was to not do a lot of editing or analyzing," he says, "but to just go with my first thought and get that down."

The alt-country icon added that the documentary soundtrack needed a pedal-steel guitar to match the Western feel of the book. It's the perfect accompaniment to both Gibbard's mournful pop vocals and Farrar's more rugged blues delivery, the instrument emphasizing the longing and loneliness carried in the words.

Farrar says he was asked to write the Kerouac soundtrack by the film's co-producer, Jim Sampas, after they'd worked together on a Bruce Springsteen tribute. The Son Volt leader admits he's not sure why he and Gibbard were singled out as Kerouac fans, adding that they had never met until the night before they went into San Francisco's Hyde Street Studios together. This trial by fire had positive consequences. "[The fact that] both of us didn't know what to expect, and no one had a clarifying sense of what this should be, [added] a degree of loose energy that was good for the project," Farrar says. It was an appropriate direction to head in, he adds, for paying tribute to a writer who thrived on working in the moment.

That looseness of vision is less effective in the documentary. One Fast Move or I'm Gone does have moments of poignancy. The old footage of Kerouac, the beautiful shots of Big Sur, and the readings from the book put you deep inside the novel. The interpretations of Big Sur's storyline and of Kerouac himself by other writers who knew him well (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Joyce Johnson, Michael McClure), famously literary musicians (Waits, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye), and other speakers from his close inner circle (Kerouac's literary agent; Neal Cassady's wife, Carolyn, and her children) are educational.

But the talking heads spiral out into some strange places, with tangential musicians (Dar Williams?) and, even worse, minor actors (Donal Logue? John Ventimiglia from The Sopranos?). The film comes to a screeching halt with the inclusion of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' Amber Tamblyn. Why she's a Kerouac expert is anyone's guess, but the way she shakes her head and says, "Oh, Jack, Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack" after hearing one of his lines — as though he were some dude who had just come on to this young starlet at a party — gives the impression director Curt Worden was desperate to find known faces to include in his movie. She painfully dumbs down a clever documentary concept.

But as many in the movie point out, Kerouac will never go out of style, and this multifaceted approach to one of his lesser-discussed works is worth checking out, despite its flaws. There's much to learn from the film, and even better, Farrar and Gibbard have effortlessly guided Big Sur's words from the printed page to the recording studio. This new film and upcoming performance devoted to the beloved writer should help turn a whole new generation of Kerouac fans on to the writer's goop, gristle, and thistle.

 
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