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At MVFF35, Kerouac's 'On the Road' Hits the Big Screen with Deep Bay Area Roots

Family, friends and followers of the Beat Generation gather at the Rafael Film Center for Walter Salles' long-gestating adaptation of the classic American novel.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac's classic American novel that has incited countless road trips, intrepid travels and insatiable journeys over the past 55 years, made its U.S. premiere on the big screen at the 35th Mill Valley Film Festival Thursday night.

But for a film whose title dictates the lack of specific geographic roots, the night sure felt like a celebration not only of Walter Salles' long-gestating cinematic adaption of Kerouac's novel, but also of the film's deep ties to the Bay Area.

"It all originated for us here in the Bay Area," On the Road producer Rebecca Yeldham said.

In the audience was longtime Bay Area resident John Cassady, son of Neal Cassady, on whom co-protagonist Dean Moriarty, the man "whose every muscle lives to twitch and go," is modeled. Yeldham said Cassady and his sisters were invaluable in creating the film. 

Anne Marie Santos, the daughter of Lu Anne Henderson, Cassady's longtime lover and on whom On the Road's Marylou is based, was also in attendance to watch Twilight superstar Kristen Stewart play Marylou. 

Yeldham credited Tam Valley actor Peter Coyote, a longtime Beat Generation acolyte and narrator of the 1985 documentary Kerouac, the Movie, with connecting Salles to many of the remaining leading lights of that era, including Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure and Diane di Prima. Corte Madera resident and Kerouac biographer Gerry Nicosia was also in the house.

"Each of these people had the desire and the character to reinvent a future," Salles said of the film's characters in a video clip prior to the screening at the Rafael Film Center. "They sought meaning and understanding and, needless to say, they became our heroes."

The film, which like the novel is based on the years in the 1940s that Kerouac spent traveling and gallivanting with Cassady and a number of other central Beat figures like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, stars Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and Garrett Hedlund as Moriarty. 

Francis Ford Coppola, who bought the rights to On the Road 33 years ago, is the film's executive producer. Its U.S. premiere in Mill Valley caps a seemingly endless journey that embodies the difficulty in bringing to life a novel with such an enduring legacy. 

"Everybody who loves this book has a vision of it in their mind and has a Dean and Sal in their mind as well," Yeldham said.

While the film drew some mixed reviews at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, it clearly had a rapt audience Thursday night that identified with its protagonists' westward longing, as best described by Kerouac himself in On the Road:

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it..."

The 411: The Mill Valley Film Festival runs through Oct. 14. For more info and to buy tickets, go to the festival's website.

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