It is fascinating to see the embryos of genius before full gestation and the power of the group in this narrowly focused biographical story of the formative years of Allen Ginsburg (Daniel Radcliffe), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), three of the most influential poets of the twentieth century before they had become the standard bearers of the Beat generation. It is also a murder mystery. It begins in 1944 at Columbia University as they are all finding their way and their voices. This is a little known episode which was purposely kept under wraps by all of the characters who were involved. The story was only revealed after the death of Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) who is little known to history but at the center of this group and arguably of huge importance to the artistic development of these three legendary figures.
Lucien was charismatic, charming, cheeky, witty, brazen and phenomenally beautiful, a sort of Sebastian Flight (Brideshead Revisited). He was an irreverent instigator and very debauched. The irony is that he was not a writer at all. In fact, he never appears to have written a single page of work which was handed in. He was masterful at getting others to do it for him. One in particular, the obsessed ex-professor, David Kammerer, played to lovelorn perfection by Michael C. Hall, who had thrown away his career to follow Lucien from Chicago, to Mexico and now to Columbia for the only favors he is getting from Lucien - writing his papers. Lucien demeans him and taunts him with indifference as he dallies with new friends and conquests.
The film opens in the shabby New Jersey home of young Allen Ginsburg, the mild- mannered and respectful son of a minor poet and a seriously mentally ill mother, heartbreakingly played by Jennifer Jason-Leigh, to whom he is devoted. When he receives his acceptance to Columbia he feels guilty about leaving her until his father persuades him that he must go.
Allen is a babe in the woods at Columbia and easily falls under the spell of the seductive Lucien, who introduces him to William Burroughs, and all manner of illicit pleasures. Soon he is smoking, drinking, popping a pharmacopia of pills and being goaded into escalating feats of rebellion against the institution and the academic theories being espoused by his professors. The title of the film refers to the dictum that you must rid your writing of all of the ticks and idiosyncracies which make it unique and hue to the traditional standards. They believe they are starting a movement and the synergy between them drives them to new levels of courageousness in their writing. They speak of manifestos like true revolutionaries.
The arrival of Jack Kerouac on the scene at Columbia starts things spiraling out of control. When Lucien brings him into the group it disrupts the established relationships within the group. His energy is magnetic and there is jockeying for position and repressed feelings and insecurities are heightened. So when David Kammerer is murdered, not only Lucien but also Burroughs and Kerouac are suspects. That Lucien asks Ginsburg to write his defense deposition brings all of the group together to circle the wagons, as it were, to protect Lucien. It is the end of Columbia for all of them but not the friendships which were cemented by this event and remained intact until the end.
This first film for director Krokidas was a real journey and a product of amazing perseverance. It began ten years ago with a story written by his friend Austin Bunn who wanted to make it into a play. But Krokidas convinced him to make the film and co- wrote the script. It was almost made five years ago with an entirely different cast. Daniel Radcliffe was always his first choice but he was not available in the beginning. However the first financing fell through and when he was ready to try again a few years later Radcliffe was available and this is the result.
There is much archival footage and the new material blends seamlessly. Columbia was very generous about allowing access to all the spaces needed for the scenes on campus including the rooms where the boys slept. Period music is well chosen and filled in with incidental music by Nico Muhly and a very tangible sense of the 1940’s is evoked. It is an intriguing glimpse of heedless youth told with subtlety and insight.
Review by Belle McIntyre