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The Subterraneans: Putting Beats and Jazz On the Big Screen

This 1960 movie is the only film adaptation of a Jack Kerouac novel to date, employing a jazz score and Gerry Mulligan as a hip, saxophone-playing priest.

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  • Subterraneans soundtrack

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    Photo: Album cover art

    Pianist Andre Previn, hot off the success of the musical GIGI (which also starred Leslie Caron), wrote a jazz score for THE SUBTERRANEANS that featured several top West Coast jazz artists.

  • The Subterraneans

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    Photo: Movie poster art

    The 1960 film version of Jack Kerouac's THE SUBTERRANEANS took great liberties with the writer's novel.

  • Kerouac paperback Subterraneans

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    Photo: Book cover art.

    Jack Kerouac was depressed by Hollywood's sensationalistic treatment of his novel.

  • Alene Lee

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    Photo: Flickr

    Alene Lee, Kerouac's lover and the real-life model for "Mardou" in the novel THE SUBTERRANEANS. Despite her relationship with Kerouac and some other key figures of the Beat scene, Lee kept a low profile in later years and never published a memoir or novel based on her experiences.

The Subterraneans, the only novel of Jack Kerouac’s to be adapted to film so far, was released in 1960, when the media fever surrounding the Beat Generation (much of it inspired by the publication of Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957) was still at a high pitch. Hollywood took great liberties with Kerouac’s story of a romance between his narrator stand-in (Leo Percepied, played by George Peppard) and a young black bohemian–for starters, the woman was played by the very white Leslie Caron. The soundtrack, however, was composed by Andre Previn, and it features a number of West Coast jazz luminaries–Gerry Mulligan (who also appears in the film as a hip street priest), Art Pepper, Russ Freeman, Shelly Manne, and Red Mitchell. Carmen McRae also appears, singing an updated beatnik version of “Coffee Time.” We’ll hear both dialogue and music from the film, including some selections only recently released on a new version of the sountrack from Film Score Monthly.

Some tidbits that didn’t make it into the program:

Ranald Macdougall, the director replacement for the fired brother team of Dennis and Terry Sanders, originally opened the film with the credits rolling over a Pollock/Rothko-like painting that dissolved into Gerry Mulligan playing his saxophone, the light gleaming off his crucifix. This was replaced in the final version by a much more conventional opening showing San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge in daytime. The words that appear onscreen were originally almost an exact quote of Allen Ginsberg’s description of “the subterraneans” (his character is named Adam Moorad in the book); they were altered in a manner that rendered them more neutral and cliched. The film was originally supposed to be shot in black-and-white for a more austere aesthetic; it ended up being done in Cinemascope and Metrocolor.

Here’s an article on the movie version of The Subterraneans, and a photograph of Alene Lee, the real-life model for “Mardou”, the love interest of Kerouac’s who inspired the book.

See a photo of William Burroughs and Alene Lee

Read an essay about Alene Lee, which suggests that she may have passed away around 1991.

Music Heard On This Episode

Miss D.D.
Mary Lou Williams — Black Christ of the Andes (Smithsonian Folkways, 1964)
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Miss D.D.
Mary Lou Williams — Black Christ of the Andes (Smithsonian Folkways, 1964)

Notes: Opening theme.

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Bread and Wine
Gerry Mulligan — The Subterraneans (Film Score Monthly, 1960)
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Guido's Blackhawk
Andre Previn — The Subterraneans (Sony, 1960)
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Alarm Clock
Andre Previn — Hollywood Swing and Jazz (Rhino, 1960)
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Coffee Time
Carmen McRae — The Subterraneans (Sony, 1960)
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Spaghetti Factory
Gerry Mulligan — The Subterraneans (Film Score Monthly, 1960)
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Source #2
Andre Previn — Hollywood Swing and Jazz (Rhino, 1960)
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Why Are We Afraid?
Andre Previn — The Subterraneans (Film Score Monthly, 1960)

Notes: Music bed for break

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Things Are Looking Down
Gerry Mulligan — Hollywood Swing and Jazz (Rhino, 1960)
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Roxanne at Ariel's
Russ Freeman — The Subterraneans (Film Score Monthly, 1960)
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Balloon (Like Blue)
Andre Previn — The Subterraneans (Sony, 1960)
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Red Drum Blues
Gerry Mulligan — Hollywood Swing and Jazz (Rhino, 1960)
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Togetherness
Andre Previn — The Subterraneans (Film Score Monthly, 1960)
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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