Howl is a film of layers. Most prominently, there’s an interview with Allen Ginsberg (played by James Franco), the obscenity trial surrounding the poem Howl and also a part where we get an animated version of Howl. But we also get to see scenes from Ginsberg’s life. These parts are cut together and mixed.
Howl may sound complicated from my plot description, but it is not. Epstein and Friedman have a good handle on things and deftly mix documentary and feature film. James Franco is a wonderful Ginsberg, but the heart and soul of the movie is – quite fittingly – the poem itself.
I have to admit that before seeing this film, I didn’t really know much about Allen Ginsberg or the poem. I mean, I knew that Ginsberg was a beat poet and and I knew the first lines of Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
But other than that, pretty much zilch. So I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of the film or whether James Franco acted like Allen Ginsberg.
But I can say that Howl worked wonderfully: Not only do I really want to read Ginsberg now (preferably an annotated version and with a lot of time on my hands) but the film evoked the whole Beat Poetry movement and the era so well, that I might have to stock up on Kerouac and Burroughs as well.
James Franco does a wonderful job reading Howl – I always have a hard time only listening to things (it’s just not how I take in information) but his narration is so rythmic and in combination with the animation (that I liked a lot) it just pulled you right in. I also loved the interview with Ginsberg (where Franco shines) – an inspiring almost-lecture about poetry, freedom of expression and coming to terms with who you are, even though the world might not like it.
The obscenity trial was interesting, well acted and very important in terms of fluff to keep the movie from getting too intense, but was definitely the weakest link, even though the film probably wouldn’t have worked without it [instead it would have fried your brain]. But even so there was a lot of interesting thought in these scenes.
Epstein and Friedman, apart from handling the subject very well, obviously have a lot of love for Ginsberg and it just shows in every single frame. And that is infectious for the audience, too.
Summarising: You should definitely see it. In the meantime, I have to go read Howl.