‘We have our manifesto, we need the work.’
Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? Not quite. It’s more like sex, drugs and jazz in the world of American academia in the 1940s for those who would eventually emerge as the controversial forefathers of a generation that epitomised the future of American literature and, arguably, American culture. They were the Beat Generation. They were reviled, hated and banned by the establishment, they were artists whose work has been loved and loathed in equal measure. So join us On The Road, if you will, into the world that spawned The Beats. Rather than seek to portray the whole story behind three of the primary instigators of this new wave of American literature, Kill Your Darlings focuses on a shocking murder. This is a story about relationships and horrific outcomes that had relevance to the lives of all those involved.
Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is desperate to leave home and study at Columbia University. He’s keen to escape from his respected poet father Louis Ginsberg (David Cross) but is more reluctant to leave his mother Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose mental health is deteriorating. His academic life is no less complicated. He becomes fascinated with a fellow student, the deeply disturbed but utterly charismatic Lucien Carr who introduces him to William Burroughs (Ben Foster), who we first encounter at a party, lying in a bath taking drugs though his gas mask and, later, Jack Kerouac. However, Carr has an admirer in the form of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), a lecturer who will do anything for the young man. Passionate about both literature and rebellion, the students cause havoc on campus which gets them into all sorts of trouble, but it’s Kammerer’s obsession with Carr that leads to a violent and deadly outcome
Ginsberg is our main focus for this biopic and we follow his journey from geek to burgeoning literary legend in his pre-published years, as he develops his understanding of culture, his craft as a writer and his maturity as a person, particularly with regard his sexuality. This is intrinsic within the film and vital to understanding the denouement. It is also important to us in appreciating the early emergence of the Beat Generation – the cultural shockwaves, free artistic creativity, challenging the stuffy conservatism of middle-class academia and the subculture which was denying racial segregation and promoting sexual freedom with use and abuse of drugs as the jazz piped through the night. Filmed in a natural manner which helps accentuate the story and the characters involved, Kill Your Darlings is inherently amiable but combines with the darker story of obsession and murder that revolved around the relationships between the protagonists, undoubtedly influenced their later works, and also shocked them. The court’s responses to the murder, noted just before the closing credits, ask questions that are debatable even today.
‘This is just the beginning you know.’ Kill Your Darlings is a very welcome introduction to the Beat Generation of authors, with good performances all round. It could be argued that it would have been great to see more of William Burroughs’ subversion but the focus is – rightly – on Ginsberg and Carr for this story. Indie film biopic essential then, with all the requisite ingredients: sex, drugs, jazz and murder. Hip. Cool. Daddio. You dig it? Yeah!