‘Howl’, by gay Beat generation radical Allen Ginsberg, is more than just a poem. A giddy, piquant war cry, its sexy idioms and white-hot imagery awoke a new way of thinking in a repressed, fearful ‘50s. Small wonder that, by the time of Ginsberg’s death in 1997, ‘Howl’ had sold more than 800,000 copies, been translated into 25 different languages, and had transformed into an anthem of acceptance and free speech.
Broaching such a loaded subject in biopic form was always going to be tricky. Ginsberg himself led a fascinating life, one tainted by tragedy (his mother’s descent into madness), drama (his frequent spells in jail) and romance (his affair with car thief Neal Cassidy). It’s a lot for one movie to play with, and explains the ambitious approach of directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman. Theirs is a film of four parts, Howl’s focus flitting between a quartet of distinct vignettes – interviews with Ginsberg (played by James Franco); the poet’s Beat life and first reading of ‘Howl’ in 1955; an accompanying expressionist animation; and a court hearing as a legal suit is filed against Ginsberg’s “offensive” text.
Busy is not the word, and Howl strains to suitably blend its contrasting components. The court scenes, though given a turbo-boost by actors like Jon Hamm (who looks like he’s just stepped off the Mad Men set), are the main problem, grinding proceedings to a halt. A shame, because Franco’s spirited reading of the poem is effortless, paired with a dazzling animation that features deep sea pianos, spinning, skeletal ghosts and hellish landscapes. Fingers crossed that the DVD release has a feature that plays the animation, Howl’s greatest achievement, on its own. At its best, Howl recalls the honourable experiments of an early Gus Van Sant (who serves as exec producer). At its worst, it’s directionless and meandering. 3/5
Via Out In The City