`Lowell Blues,' a love letter to Kerouac, can't be beat
by Marisa Guthrie, Boston Herald
Wednesday, December 20, 2000

"Lowell Blues: The Words of Jack Kerouac'' Tonight at 8:30 on WGBH-TV (Ch. 2)

*** (3 out of four stars)

Jack Kerouac's prose has a melodious, rhythmic quality. Reading "Doctor Sax" or "On the Road," you can feel the beat of so many introspective days and searching nights.

In "Lowell Blues: The Words of Jack Kerouac," Gloucester filmmaker Henry Ferrini captures the vividness and musicality of Kerouac's writing. Premiering tonight at 8:30 as an installment of WGBH's "Greater Boston Arts," the half-hour documentary sets early chapters of Kerouac's "Doctor Sax" to music, specifically the lilting alto sax of Lee Konitz, while also providing a stunning visual tour of Kerouac's hometown of Lowell.

With voiceover readings by Beat writer Gregory Corso, Beat enthusiast Johnny Depp, poet Robert Creeley, David Amram, Joyce Johnson and Carolyn Cassady, wife of the late Neal Cassady, "Lowell Blues" succeeds in revealing Kerouac's reverence and love for his birthplace. Walking in Kerouac's shadow, Ferrini explores the majestic landmarks and obscure corners of Lowell, all of which had a profound effect on one of America's most original and misunderstood modern writers.

Taking his cue from Kerouac, Ferrini presents Lowell as a tapestry of brick factories, wind-ravaged trees and rain-slicked streets. Through Ferrini's lens, a gritty, blue-collar mill town is rendered achingly beautiful in the red/blue glow of the intense New England light.

A nun strides purposefully down the street, her habit seemingly swaying to the beat of Konitz's bluesy riffs. The Merrimac River pounds the rocks that line its banks as Kerouac's words spill forth: "The thunderous husher of our sleep at night. I could hear it rise from the rocks in a groaning wush ululating with the water . . . By moonlight night I see the Mighty Merrimac foaming in a thousand white horses upon the tragic plains below.''

Attempting to capture that fleeting moment when nonchalant youth gives way to intellectual self-awareness, a black-and-white photograph of a smiling Kerouac dressed in his high-school football uniform blends into an image of the Lowell Public Library where Kerouac discovered the writers who would exert an indelible influence on him: Goethe, Hugo and William Penn. ". . . I used to cut classes at least once a week, to play hooky that is, just so I could go to the Lowell Public Library and study by myself at leisure such things as old chess books with their fragrance of scholarly thought . . ."

Ferrini presents Kerouac not as a tragic figure or martyr of the Beats whose final bitter years were spent in an alcohol-induced oblivion, but as hopeful and in awe of the world around him. With "On the Road," which Kerouac wrote in 1951 (it was published in 1957), Kerouac became the Pied Piper to alienated youth. But "Doctor Sax," which Kerouac wrote in 1952 (published in 1959), presents a different portrait of the artist. It is an homage to nature and spirituality, and "Lowell Blues" is a sublime visual companion. end