Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Howl Review: Doc/Drama Hybrid Misfires, Franco Soars

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 24, 2010 at 11:23AM

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.
0
Thompson on Hollywood

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.

This article is related to: Genres, Headliners, Independents, Video, Reviews, Biopics


E-Mail Updates








Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.