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In “Howl”, James Franco doesn’t merely demonstrate an unerring ear for the cadences of
Allen Ginsberg’s speech: he embodies the poet’s warmth, gentleness and deep humanism
as well.   Recreating an interview taped in ’57 while Lawrence Ferlinghetti was on trial for
selling Ginberg’s titular masterpiece, Franco’s Ginsberg speaks candidly about what he
was trying to accomplish with that poem (to express the realities of the demimonde) and
offers up some interesting ideas about writing (it is a form of meditation; one must
approach one’s muse as frankly as you would your friends).   He goes on to tell the story
of the lifelong struggle that went into the poem, to find his voice and to become himself,
interweaving the two so inseparably that you start to understand censorship as an
almost existential crime.   In floating memories we glimpse encounters with counterculture
heroes such as Carl Solomon, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, but these personages are
more like dream shadows and are not vividly incarnated.  

And why are the courtroom scenes so oddly stilted?   (Intentionally or not, there’s a meta
dimension to casting Jon Hamm as Ferlinghett’s defense attorney: on “Man Men” Hamm
plays a quintessential early 60’s man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit with a hidden side to which
the incipient counterculture speaks.)   Maybe the filmmakers (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey
Friedman) wanted to contrast straight-world sterility with the animated segments that
illuminate the large swaths of the poem Franco reads on the soundtrack: the animation is
jazzy, explicit, and kinetic, if perhaps too on-the-nose at points.   Hearing the poem read
aloud reminds us what an act of rock & roll it was: physical, honest, free, a taking up of
arms in the struggle against turning oneself into a robot.  

We also see Ginsberg in a Greenwich Village club giving a reading which builds into an
electrifying affirmation of all that exists.   We see him fully inhabiting the vocation of the
poet, breathing a world into life from a handful of words, making words perform magic.  
Even the courtroom scenes, the film’s least successful, make one proud of the wiseness of
the “straight world” and the Constitution (Tea Partiers notwithstanding), as the
bespectacled, conservative-looking judge (Bob Balaban), his ears still ringing with
hardcore images of acts he must have barely known existed, gives his verdict, calmly and
rationally restating the case for that cornerstone of principles: in America we must never

Rating: ****  

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

- Oct 21, 2010

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