Examining the poem, Howl, the film uses only words from its obscenity trial, and from an interview Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) gave then, and finally from the poem itself. The film intercuts a 1955 reading Ginsberg gives to an increasingly enthusiastic audience, the interview, scenes from his life described in the interview, surreal animation of segments of the poem, and scenes from the 1957 trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers), who published Howl in 1956. Pivotal are his mother's mental illness and early death, friendship with Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), struggles with homosexuality before embracing it, falling in love with Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit), and Ginsberg's take on the poem's theme - frank and free expression.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Howl is both poetic as film and insightful as dramatised documentary, an inspired piece of cinema that immerses us in the ideas and themes of social change in America in the mid 50s. It seems so long ago, yet it's less than a single lifespan since the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. It seems so silly, so quaint - were it not for the underlying narrow mindedness of it all.
But the reason this film is exceptional is not that it retells that story, but HOW it retells it, using recreations of Ginsberg reading his own poetry - with James Franco delivering a wonderful, captivating performance as Ginsberg - intercut with both a recreation of an interview he gave at the time, and some wonderful, effective animation (and excellent music) overlaid on the poetry readings.
The combination of the various layers and elements elevates the film to a gripping journey through society, time, poetry and a man whose struggles and demons led him to be a creative fountain. Now regarded as one of the great poets of his age, along with writers such as his friend Jack Kerouac (Tadd Rotondi), Ginsberg comes to life in this film as a multidimensional character.
Marvellous performances, too, from David Strathairn as the prosecuting counsel, and Jeff Daniels as Professor David Kirk, the expert witness helping the prosecution.
Published June 1, 2011
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HOWL: DVD (MA)
CAST: James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker, John Hamm, Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams, David Strathairn, Alessandro Nivola, Bob Balban, Aaron Tveit, Jon Prescott, Sean Patrick Reilly, Todd Rotondi
PRODUCER: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Christine K. Walker
DIRECTOR: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
SCRIPT: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Edward Lachman
EDITOR: Jake Pushinsky
MUSIC: Carter Burwell
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Therese DePrez
RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 10, 2011
PRESENTATION: 16 : 9
SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and star James Franco, HOLY! HOLY! HOLY!: The Making of HOWL, Franco reads "Howl", Ginsberg reads "Howl", Theatrical Trailer
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
DVD RELEASE: June 1, 2011