Back ‘on the road’ from beyond: Beat Angel (film review)

With a grainy, indie, half-lit café feel, with brass sounds more akin to instruments tuning up than a jazz performance, the new film Beat Angel reflects the restless, transcendent creativity of Jack Kerouac and other Beatniks. Desperate to reach a discouraged author, Kerouac returns from the dead for one day, performing at a poetry slam in his honor and befriending amazed, but skeptical audience members.

Balestri embodies Kerouac throughout the film, most effectively during a highly energetic open mic performance, holding my interest for its entire ten minutes. Defining ‘spontaneous poetry’ via spoken word examples, Balestri relates aspects of the Beat aesthetic: the use of jazz rhythms, recognizing and speaking the truth about our common humanity, and reworking the travel memoir genre. Sometimes slow and academic, other times fast and musical for illustrative purposes, his presentation covers a great variety of intellectual and emotional ground.

Beat Angel celebrates its protagonists’ creativity without smoothing over the darker aspects of their lives. The film’s most complex character, Gerard Tripp, slams Kerouac and other Beats as troubled, overrated drunks. And the movie opens with Kerouac dying alone, curtains drawn in his mother’s living room, with only whiskey and old cooking shows for comfort.

The instrumental sounds follow the characters, sometimes even as they sit alone, giving the sense that something happens within their heads that only they hear, or perhaps choose to hear. The disjointed background noise during certain scenes – Kerouac’s death, and his memory of his brother’s illness and passing – is isolating, restless, even more jarring than silence. Perhaps the film suggests here that some of the Beats did not choose the writing life so much as turn to writing and other arts to quiet and satisfy the inner voices, the questions and contradictions inherent in their lives and times.

Gerard, bitter over his lack of commercial success as a writer, lives in a dingy apartment and hides unsubmitted manuscripts away in a trunk. In one of the film’s most poignant gestures, the reincarnated Kerouac inspires not through his posthumous fame and success, but through how he sought beauty and meaning through his times of personal loss and weakness. In a lengthy dream sequence, Kerouac and Gerard remember Kerouac’s brother, who passed away at a young age. The candle and church/funerary imagery suggest that Gerard abandoning his writing would represent another form of death, whether or not he ever lands a book contract.

Others draw strength from Kerouac during his one-day stint on Earth, including a shy, beginning writer and the bartender, who once aspired to become a painter. Amy Humphrey brings genuine openness to personal and artistic growth to her role, illustrated by how she thinks through his advice. I was left wishing for a little more backstory and complexity for her character: what did she write, why was she drawn to Kerouac and the Beats, etc – although I appreciate her performance. Lisa Niemi pulls off her part as a grown career woman with a past of unexplored dreams, illustrating how people in all stages of life can benefit from mentorship and inspiration: beginners, the hardworking but discouraged, and even those who have let go of old aspirations.

Beat Angel avoids adding to the personality-cult around Jack Kerouac and instead celebrates writing and art in themselves. Kerouac himself scans Gerard’s bookshelf, pointing out how everyone learns from others, and how he studied Whitman, Emerson, and other older authors. And his final message to Gerard is not to write more like Kerouac, but to pursue and develop his own style and craft.

Only an hour and a half, Beat Angel is a short film, and some of its characters’ stories could be expanded. Overall, the piece is very thoughtful, evocative, and reflective of the experimental artistic work of the Beat writers. People can understand and enjoy Beat Angel even without knowing much about the period’s writers, and the film explains basic ideas in an entertaining enough style to make the film accessible and enjoyable.

Beat Angel is directed by Randy Allred and produced by Allred, Frank Tabbita, and Bruce Boyle. The film is available for purchase at San Francisco’s Beat Museum, or online at

 For basic information about Jack Kerouac and other Beat writers, and how/why they were important and influential in world literary and musical culture, please click here: