west coast beat cover

San Francisco’s bohemian history was augmented by the renaissance of creative individuals which began there in the late 1950’s. The most significant influences in this movement were Beat figures Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Filmed on location in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, and at Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado, this film is a tribute to the ongoing vision of America’s renegade minds, as well as a salute to the visionary power of Jack Kerouac.

Narrated by Kerouac’s biographer Gerald Nicosia with magnetic poetic performances filled with hip humor and existential dissent, West Coast: Beat & Beyond is essential to understanding the works and personalities surrounding the mythos of the Beat Generation. Rare appearances by Kerouac’s daughter, writer Jan Kerouac, poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Micheline, Joanne Kyger, Bob Kaufman, and Philip Lamantia, as well as novelist Ken Kesey illuminate the imagination and inspire a torrential indictment against American mediocrity. Historic photographs combined with portraits by director Chris Felver anchor the fascination of this unique film. One gets a feeling for the intrepid continuance inspired by the resonance of Kerouac’s phrase “the unspeakable visions of the individual.”


What inspired the young Ken Kesey to migrate to the Bay Area, where he founded the Merry Pranksters and perpetrated one of the liveliest cultural legends of the '60s? He got the idea from reading Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” the 1957 novel that defined the free­wheeling Beat spirit for at least two generations of youthful rebels. Or so Kesey tells us in West Coast: Beat and Beyond, a KQED TV documentary about the legacy of San Francisco’s Beat writers. Kerouac died in 1969, at the age of 47, but a nucleus of Beat generation survivors is alive and remarkably well in San Francisco today. This is the message of local filmmaker Chris Felver and writer Gerald Nicosia, who interviewed 13 writers associated with the Beat scene for their hour­long documentary.

Narrated by Kerouac’s friend Allen Ginsberg, the film is a roster of the participants in the Bay Area’s most notorious literary escapade: Given their reputation for pursuing ecstasy and enlightenment via drugs, sex and physical risk, this group of survivors appears surprisingly rosy and cheerful these days. It is difficult to identify the frolicsome Ginsberg and Jack Micheline of the film with the fabled decadence of the Beats, or with any serious political critique of the Eisenhower years.

Despite its title, the film is not a look back at the '50s, so much as a reminder of how many of that era’s legendary characters are still very much with us. Poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti is shown presiding at his City Lights bookstore, the locus of Beat publishing in the '50s. Ferlinghetti reads from his poem “Look Homeward, Jack,” dedicated to Kerouac, while Beat historian Nicosia talks about Kerouac’s affinity with novelist Thomas Wolfe, author of “Look Home ward, Angel.” Jazz drummer Howard Hart, one of Kerouac’s New York roommates, nurses a beer in a North Beach bar. There are cameo readings by poets Micheline, Philip Lamantia, Gregory Corso, Harold Norse, Bobbie Louise Hawkins and Joanne Kyger.

An irrepressible Ginsberg narrates, the film, with the air of a Jewish patriarch entertaining his grandchildren with tales of a scandalous youth. Ginsberg reads from “Howl,” the poem he dedicated to Kerouac, plays the guitar with Kesey, and provides a much needed overview of the origins of anti­establishment writing in the Berkeley Renaissance of the '40s, and the growth of that movement into the San Francisco Beat scene a decade later. Ginsberg sketches the lineage of West Coast pro test writing. He begins with the anti­war magazines of the 40s, the Ark, Cirle, and Illiterati. The Ark, a journal originally published at the World War II conscientious objectors’ camp at Walport, Ore., by a group including poet William Everson and printer Adrian Wilson.

The memory of Kerouac is the organizing spirit of the film. The striking Jan Kerouac makes a vivid appearance in the film, reading from her mother Joan’s memoir of married life with Kerouac. In one of the film’s rare comic moments, Jan Kerouac reads her mother’s account of trying to leave Jack. Joan arrived at her new apartment appalled to find that the movers had moved her husband along with the furniture. He was riding on top of his desk, which he said he couldn’t leave because the manuscript of his novel was locked inside it.

Beat & Beyond may not be history, but it is an entertaining film anthology of poetry by writers who still feel the influence of the tenacious Beat legend.