Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams' "What Happened to Kerouac?" (which opens Sunday at the Nuart) never really answers its own question. It engages us, amuses us, intellectually prods us, even moves us deeply. It brings us closer to Jack Kerouac than any other film or video record. It rubs our nose in his life, shows us his lovers and admirers at their most naked and undisguised.

But the puzzle remains unsolved, a postscript, something to mull over as you walk away. We never really know why Kerouac--a writer with prodigious gifts, movie-star looks and publicity a politician might envy--spent himself in drink and despair, and died in 1969, at 47, of cirrhosis and alcoholism: ironically, right at the highest blaze of the literary-moral revolution for which he became a kind of poet-saint.

Was it loneliness? Incurable dissolution? Inability to handle success? Frustration at a world that had passed him by? It's to the credit of the film makers that, no matter how many times we've pondered these questions or traveled this particular road--even if we've seen these same interviewees previously (in films like John Antonelli's "Kerouac" of last year)--they keep it fresh, absorbing and keen.

Their portrait is fashioned from three sources: interviews with old literary cronies, relatives and friends; archival footage of Kerouac and others (such now-famous stints as his jazz-backed "On the Road" reading for Steve Allen, and his drunken 1968 buffoonery on William F. Buckley's "Firing Line"), and poetically shot views of his old hangouts (Nathaniel Dorsky's new footage of Lowell, Mass., and San Francisco, blended with Rudy Burckhardt's evocative '40s and '60s films of Times Square). These last are accompanied by Kerouac readings: those hushed, dreamy, muscular lyrics of the pleasures of a hidden or ignored America--its road thrills, sad mementos or Dionysiac lowlife. The musical score--perfectly appropriate and beautiful in itself--is mostly taken from old Thelonius Monk records and includes one great live duet between Kerouac's bop idols Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Much of the film was originally shot as a video, and blown up to 35 millimeter, but it's still startlingly rich and clear. And MacAdams and Lerner seem to have a knack for catching their subjects at a moment of maximum emotion or exposure. Allen Ginsberg is tenderly eloquent and sensitive; William Burroughs, tart and ironical; Herbert Huncke, full of shriveled wit; Edie Parker and Carolyn Cassady, almost incongruously steady and solid. Gregory Corso emerges as a kind of cranky character star: like an unabashed toothless barroom eccentric who can gum his foes to death. One interviewee, Fran Landesman, even gives us Kerouac's own explanation for the fall: As a good Catholic and devoted son, he could not commit suicide, but he fully intended to drink himself to death.

Why? Should we trust the teller, not the tale? Kerouac's life--like Hemingway's, Faulkner's, Fitzgerald's, or Capote's--seems one more example of the clash in America's literary arena between art and celebrity: how art suffers, how celebrity exacts its terrible price.

As an unknown, Kerouac was a literary dynamo: tearing off his novels in great feverish, muscular bursts of Dexedrine-fed hyperactivity. As a public figure--after "On the Road"--he was turned successively into hero, villain, target, entertainer and clown. And finally, perhaps, sacrifice.

Maybe, underneath it all, Kerouac was too tender himself--the vulnerability hidden under his carefree macho image--to survive the bile of his literary "enemies."

But the best thing about "What Happened to Kerouac?" (Times rated: Mature) is the way it regathers his friends--as stimulating and lucid a group as you'll find in any current movie. Much of it may be "talking heads," but it's grand talk: conversation as an art. It's a film celebration of the beauty of words, and of the people who love them.


Producer Richard Lerner. Directors Richard Lerner, Lewis MacAdams. Camera Lerner, Nathaniel Dorsky. Co-producers Malcolm Hart, Dorsky, MacAdams. Editors Robert Estrin, Dorsky. Music Thelonius Monk.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature (Language).

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