Howl is an ambitious and admirable film from documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk). The filmmakers started out trying to make a documentary, but wanted to be able to show poet Allen Ginsberg as a young man, delivering the searing, profane classic poem “Howl” in 1955. They workshopped the movie at various Sundance labs, but the transition from doc to dramatic feature is an awkward one. The documentarians fell into the trap of trying to make everything based on real life, including the “Howl” obscenity trial that made Ginsberg famous—but putting well-known actors Bob Balaban, David Straithairn and Jon Hamm, skilled as they are, into the courtroom just serves to underscore its inauthenticity.
(See video of Franco reading "Howl" below.)
The movie is in turns inspiring, frustrating, and compelling. But finally, it doesn’t come together. Adding animation inspired by Eric Drooker’s illustrations accompanying Ginsberg’s poems to James Franco’s reading of "Howl," for example, is awkward at best. Franco, who was introduced to the filmmakers by Gus Van Sant, makes a warm and soulful Ginsberg. He watched footage of the poet as an older man, listened to countless readings and interviews, and watched the short Pull My Daisy for a glimpse of the younger Ginsberg’s gestures and movements. I found inspiring both Franco’s readings of the poem and a long interview (based on transcripts) about Ginsberg’s evolution as a writer in search of an honest voice.
A more straightforward dramatic biopic of the young Ginsberg might have worked better, with more material on the two writers who broke his heart, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, as well his life lover Peter Orlovsky.