While Hollywood adores biopics about poets, the more brooding and love-struck the better, it’s a rare thing to see a film take a single poem as its subject. But Howl, from Oscar-winning directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt), does precisely that. Howl spends its over two hours helping us re-appreciate the titular poem, Allen Ginsberg’s Beat Generation epic of social critique and personal joy, and one of our century’s most significant, controversial and beloved works of literature.
More specifically, Howl helps its audience, likely familiar with the poem and author, re-examine how challenging and unprecedented this complex poem was in the context of its time. It encourages us to recognize that "Howl" not only changed the life of letters in America through sometimes-crude vernacular and new jazz-like rhythms, but it also changed the life of its author, who used it as a vehicle to assert his identity as a practitioner of same-sex love during an era when homosexual acts were deemed illegal in some places and a mental illness in others. Ginsberg’s poem was a howl of anger and hurt, yes, with its famous destroyed minds, "starving hysterical, naked," but also a howl of liberation and affirmation, as seen in the poem’s incantation-like "footnote": "The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy!"
A radical poem demands a nonlinear analysis, and Epstein and Friedman rose to the challenge by creating a stripped-down "dramatized documentary" that encourages the viewer to fill in the gaps with his or her own interpretation. The film shifts back and forth between several versions of and interpretations of the poem, all based on the historical record and transcripts. There’s a lengthy recreated scene of Ginsberg’s first reading of "Howl" at a club in San Francisco to an eager Beat Generation audience, alternating with a second reading of the poem accompanied by music and animation, so that during film we hear the poem in its entirety, some sections twice. Both readings are performed by the film’s star, James Franco, who, despite his movie star smoothness, does an uncanny job capturing the ethnic New York cadences of Ginsberg’s voice and his intense mannerisms without appearing to ape them. The animation, inspired by Eric Drooker’s 1996 illustrations of the poem, hews excessively close to Ginsberg’s wildly varying metaphors and images (indeed, there is an actual starving, naked man crawling through the streets in its very first frame), and yet it rarely intrudes on the aural pleasure of hearing the poem read aloud, providing instead a screen-saver for the listener. A better choice for accompaniment is the musical backing of this second presentation of the poem, which accentuates its lyrical qualities and its status as a precursor to Dylan, poetic folk-rock and countless earnest spoken-word artists in dim cafes, reciting poems to the rhythm of tapping feet and snapping fingers.