Last night I watched the Sundance Channel premiere of “Neal Cassady” - an ostensible biopic of the legendary beat generation muse, Neal Cassady. The film was an incredibly frustrating disappointment. Luckily, it was only 80 minutes long, and entirely forgettable. For a huge fan of the beat generation - in all its varied guises, watching a film so riddled with inaccuracies was a painful experience, in and of itself. As a film, “Neal Cassady” failed to capture any semblance of the seriously flawed man who was mythologized in the works of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
Within seconds of the film’s start, the inaccuracies started: opening with Kerouac in the dressing room, waiting to go on what was, presumably, the Steve Allen show, he’s approached and seduced by a fan. That may have been artistic license, but seconds later he’s on the set and asked by the interviewer, presumably Steve Allen, about his new movie, “The Subterraneans” and asked to read from it. Not to carp on details, but that book hadn’t been published when he appeared on the Steve Allen show (and far from being made into a movie, which itself was a grotesque shadow of the novel - only sharing the title, in fact).
That opening sequence, so utterly ridiculous, pointedly showed how little the filmmaker, Noah Buschel - who wrote and directed the film - understood of his main characters! Kerouac appeared on the Steve Allen show and read from “On the Road.” But, more significantly, he then went on to read passages from “Visions of Cody” - surreptitiously! Kerouac, at that time, believed he had moved on from his prose style of the “Road” novel, and more intensely captured the “real” Neal Cassady in his experimental prose work (“Visions”). The symbolism of Kerouac’s actual appearance and reading could not be more apt to kick off the film!
More glaring factual mistakes are just downright carelessness - last I checked, Neal and Carolyn Cassady had THREE children, not the just two! But to revisit the road trip Keroauc and Cassady took, Buschel had Neil tentatively asking some jaded pool hall denizen if he knew Neil’s dad (an out of work alcoholic, to put it mildly). Cassady never did things that tentatively - it contradicted the very essence of his being. Watching that pitiful exchange on film was the second realization in the first 10 minutes that Buschel had no handle on his character.
The film is barely 80 minutes long. The bulk of that time is spent on Cassady’s interaction with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. By that point in Neal’s life he was a shell of his former self - and the beat generation had long since faded into history, replaced with the flower children of the 1960s. Neal Cassady is all the more interesting because he was a bridge between two generations. He found himself immersed in Kesey’s “Electric Kool Aid Acid Tests” and became the official bus driver for “Further” - on their cross country travels!
A lot was left out of this film - obviously there is not enough time in 80 minutes to tell the full story! It left out the explanation of his arrest for marijuana possession (and Kerouac’s guilt over what he believed was the intense focus on Neal brought on by his portrayal of him in “On the Road”). And there was no mention of the Grateful Dead? The Dead were the house band at Kesey’s Acid Tests, so I was very surprised at that omission. The Grateful Dead’s “Cassady” honors Neil’s memory.
This film does not (and it also prompted a deservedly bitter response from Carolyn Cassady).
for a good film on the early neal, check out "the last time i committed suicide."