Dir. by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman - 1 hr. 24 min.
I was surprised by the approach this film took to making a movie about Allen Ginsberg and his famous poem, "Howl." Rather than a gritty indie approach, this is a fanciful celebration of "Howl." There are four main components to the film: an interview (or interviews) with Ginsberg (played by James Franco) in his apartment, the 1957 obscenity trial against publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the first public reading of the poem in a coffeehouse, with is divided between performance and animated segments that visualize the poem. The film cuts back and forth between all four segments.
I haven't seen actual footage of Ginsberg, so I can't really judge Franco's take on him, other than to note that he is playing a character. I've seen enough of his films to know that his diction and mannerisms here aren't his usual ones, but whether they match up to Ginsberg's, I couldn't say. Jon Hamm has the other prominent role, as Ferlighetti's defense lawyer.
When I mentioned that this film is a celebration of "Howl," I don't consider that a bad thing. Large portions of the interview segments are an explanation of what a lot of the lines mean (as well as providing a background portrait of Ginsberg). The performance and animation are ways to deliver the meat of the poem itself without it being a dry delivery, and they work. And thankfully, the courtroom scenes aren't as heavy-handed as they might have been. Witness Hamm's closing argument: it exhibits intelligence and a rational argument rather than a preacher-style denunciation of censorship, as well as being forgiving of those who would seek to keep the work out of the hands of the average man. It would have been easy (and weakened the film, as well) to have taken a more defiant tone: the fact that there is a film about this poem fifty years post-publication says more to debunk the literary experts of the time who took a dismal view of "Howl's" literary merit than any grandstanding or snappy comebacks could.
If you're into beat poetry, you probably will already be interested in this film. And if you're not, "Howl" is a good place to start: it's hard to find a more important piece of work from that scene. The film is a pleasant surprise in it's celebratory tone, and that makes what might be mildly unpleasant source material (depending on your point of view) much more palatable.
4 / 5 - NF Streaming