Howl started out as a documentary, but the finished product, from directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, offers much, much more.
This unique mesh of animated sequences, black and white filming and reconstructions of historical events, address both the content and context of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Howl – and in this sense, it will probably run the risk of being used as an educational aid. It’s a risk because, although this is no doubt a good introduction for those studying the ‘Beat Generation’, Howl should certainly be recognised as a superb film in it’s own right.
The plot, if you’re looking for a plot, follows the 1957 obscenity trial of Howl’s publisher, alternating between courtroom drama, and interviews with Ginsberg himself, played by James Franco. But the outcome is predictable enough, and unusually, it’s not what drives the action forwards.
Franco, however, does make for captivating viewing. He reiterates, quite possibly word for word, an interview with a journalist regarding the trial, as well as his unique vision for poetry and literature. From Ginsberg‘s croaky intonation, to his slightly stiff posture, it’s all there. He’s charismatic yet awkward, enthusiastic but humble. You don’t quite forget that it’s Franco playing the part of the literary legend, but you do get a sense that he has somehow tapped into the poet’s psyche.
Since the film premièred at the Sundance Film Festival, the actor has received a huge amount of praise for his portrayal of the poet – and indeed, by all accounts, it’s spot on. It’s also a million miles away from his last starring role as Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours – demonstrating Franco’s exceptional talent when it comes to the difficult task of playing characters which aren’t entirely fictional.
However, although he may be particularly impressive, it is not Franco who runs the show. Neither is it Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm, who fails to make much of an impact all, considering this film could prove significant in his attempt at making the transition to the big screen.
Rather, it is the poem itself which is the driving force of this narrative. Throughout the film, Howl is presented in it’s entirety, accompanied by the curious animated imagery of New Yorker cover artist Eric Drooker (who collaborated with Ginsberg in the 1990s), which provides an interesting interpretation – if not a little literal at times – of the poem’s words and meaning.
Yet Howl does not revel in any kind of beatnik exclusivity – it does not simply show its audience a movement of which they can never be a part, although this is undoubtedly the case. Instead it draws the viewer in, and with an occasional glance at a younger Ginsberg reading the poem at the infamous Six Gallery in San Francisco, invites the audience to spend a moment in the company of the likes of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Howl takes something of an experimental approach but it works and, whilst it might not be for everyone, it’s certainly a must-see for angel-headed hipsters and Beat fans today.