Chuck Workman's exhilarating documentary The Source covers the Beat Generation, that renegade, innovative group of artists whose radical activities created a blazingly new American ethos and paved the way for the counterculture movements of the '60s and '70s. It focuses specifically on the lives and work of three seminal figures: William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The fast-paced film incorporates mesmerizing archival footage and interviews with various important Beats: pioneering poet Gregory Corso (hilariously raddled and feisty as he tells a kibitzing onlooker, 'Shut the f*** up!'), Ken Kesey, Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Jerry Garcia, Philip Glass, Robert Motherwell, etc. Drug laureate Timothy Leary proffers this highly practical advice: 'You should never take acid above the first floor.' It is absolutely fascinating to see the real Kerouac here; caught on film, he is every bit as communicative, earthy and irresistibly hunky as one might have dreamt ('Love, tenderness and piety, I believed in it.'). Neal Cassady, his quirky buddy and inspiration, is also present, displaying ample, studly evidence as to why all the Beats were enamored of him at one time or another, rather like Matthew McConaughey crossed with Anthony Kiedis.
The film, although highly diverting, feels a bit surface-y, due to the over-abundance of material it tries to include. It also features guest appearances by three Beat-loving movie stars. An appealingly ravaged-looking Johnny Depp incarnates Kerouac, and gives his immortal On the Road a reading that has a cannily gauged fatigue and is dead sexy, to boot. (The actor once paid big bucks for a Kleenex belonging to his idol.) Less successful are John Turturro doing an affected rendition of Ginsberg's deathless poem Howl, and Dennis Hopper, who frenetically tries to be Burroughs, but comes off more like a Friz Freleng cartoon version of him. Indeed, who could possibly match the real Burroughs, a self-described 'WASP washout,' who, blessedly, appears often in all his mordant, nasally bellicose glory. 'Smoking hashish and taking heroin seemed to promise a glamorous life. Little did I know...' he avers. He's priceless, intoning one of his essential commandments, 'Thou shalt not blow pot smoke into the face of any pet.'
Ginsberg, who often comes off as a model of unassuming Buddhist saintliness, observes that he had no idea that Howl would ever be famous. Mailer, ever-confrontational, opines, 'Sometimes I think that ugly little queer, that four-eyed kike, is the bravest man in America.' (There's a memorable moment of the young Ginsberg with an even younger Bob Dylan, at Kerouac's gravesite.)
Workman includes humorous clips from TV shows like 'Father Knows Best,' 'Happy Days' and 'Saturday Night Live' (a funny 'Star Trek: The Beat Generation' skit) to illustrate how the movement, largely in the easily identifiable form of 'beatniks,' infiltrated pop culture. These, along with film splices from The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause, are amusing, but add unnecessary padding. More to the point would have been the inclusion of additional footage from recent Gen-Y attended Beat reunions held across the country. Workman makes an effective link between these writers and their contemporary, groundbreaking counterparts in the worlds of abstract art (Motherwell, Jackson Pollock) and be-bop jazz (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis). His choice of music is pretty impeccable, especially Philip Glass' Ginsberg collaboration, 'Cabin in the Rockies,' and piercingly beautiful arrangements of 'Stella by Starlight' and 'Don't Explain,' by Stan Getz and Chet Baker, respectively.