Is there anything left to say about the Beats? The Source, Chuck Workman’s lovingly assembled documentary, doesn’t drop any bombshells about the life and work of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs (though it does include some nifty home-movie footage of Kerouac’s pinup muse, Neal Cassady). This may, however, be the rare case in which a filmmaker’s unadulterated worship of his subjects adds force and resonance — and not just luster — to the way that we see them. Through a lively weave of reminiscence and pop-cultural collage (beatniks invading The Flintstones, a bloated Kerouac sparring with William F. Buckley Jr. on Firing Line), The Source makes the case that the birth of postwar bohemia, spearheaded by the popularity of Kerouac’s On the Road (an epic poem masquerading as a novel), marked the essential shift in 20th-century American life, bringing the churnings of the unconscious into the hot glare of everyday existence.
The movie features Johnny Depp, John Turturro, and Dennis Hopper reciting passages from the authors’ seminal works, and these sequences testify to how the cult of celebrity extended to the self-dramatization of the Beats. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs were, among other things, their own highly cultivated works of art; with their soaring egos, their apocalyptic sunbursts of language, they were Walt Whitmans for the age of television. I enjoyed the provocation of The Source, yet the movie does commit one rather embarrassing sin of myopia. Watching it, you’d think that the revolution in middle-class America during the past 50 years had everything to do with these three fearless white men who lyrically undermined the white-man establishment and nothing to do with those equally joyful and untethered bards, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and James Brown.