Sunday, 14 October 2012

On the Road signals the remarkable transformation of Sam Riley

Sam Riley

Adapting Jack Kerouac's landmark novel On the Road for the big screen was never going to be easy. Director Walter Salles has, however, approached the project with guts and pulled off a masterstroke in leftfield casting which turns what could have been an average film into one to remember. 
Sam Riley, an Englishman in his early 30s living in Berlin who's professional acting career is less than six years old, leads the impressive ensemble cast as narrator Sal Paradise in the story of a novelist who travels across America looking for inspiration for his debut book. 
Salles' choice of Riley is perhaps most astonishing due to his origins. I first encountered the Yorkshireman as the enthralling frontman of Leeds pub rock band 10,000 Things who I saw play a few times, mainly in Sheffield and had a quick chat once at a shambolic gig in a student halls of residence. Riley himself, ever energetic on stage dressed in a ruffled grey suit, blatantly thought plenty of himself and it was this confidence and antagonism which is likely to have led to the band's implosion after one record on Polydor in 2005. They remain the authors of Dogsbody, one of the catchiest post-pub bellowers in my considerable boozy singing armoury and Riley had the rough edges still firmly etched on what he is now. 
However I was surprised and nervous when I heard Riley was to play the lead in one of my favourite books, Touching From a Distance, Deborah Curtis' account of life living with Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in Control. I needn't have worried. Riley, playing Curtis in a the film which was shot in my hometown of Nottingham because Manchester had become too well developed to pass for the 1970s version of itself, was astonishing. Selected for his ability to sing the songs live in filming, he mastered Curtis' movements on stage and portaged the tortured frontman and talented genus perfectly. Riley's role alongside Helen Mirren as Pinkie Brown in an adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock also won him plaudits and it would've been good to see him play the Fall frontman Mark E Smith in 24 Hour Party People had the scenes not been cut. 
But Sal Paradise is a different beast. Portrayed with a gravelly accent and held up as the finest penmanship of Kerouac, one of the beat poet movements foremost figures alongside Allen Ginsberg, he had to add  softened literary touch to his brusk roles. 
Paradise is actually, due to being a sponge taking on others' inspirations, perhaps not a typical lead character. Ever in the wake of friend and idol Dean Moriaty from who he learns of a fake working class living, Riley's Paradise is ever scribbling what others say on a tiny notepad or watching on as one of the multiple sex scenes grinds away. 
Personally, Kerouac doesn't quite do it for me. What he stands for - post-war liberalisation, challenging widely held ideas and downing plenty of booze in the process - I support, however his particular brand of Americanised pretentiousness is often difficult to swallow. When it comes to stream of consciousness writers, I would much prefer to read Lester Bangs lauding Iggy & the Stooges for 20,000 words from a different era. So it is to Salles' credit that the pretentious elements are kept to a minimum and that an ensemble cast which includes Steve Buscemi getting shagged by a man and Kirsten Dunst looking decidedly world weary. The film itself is a little long at two hours ten minutes but the humour, great blues music and careful dialogue of what sometimes feels like a collection of scenes is enough to keep viewers engaged as it trawls across the US.
Riley brought gravitas, panache and humour to a role that drastically needed it and showed himself to be that rare kind of Yorkshireman who can reinvent himself yet stay true to his routes. 

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