Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have previously worked in the documentary field and are perhaps most famous for their excellent documentaries, Celluloid Closet and The Time of Harvey Milk, the latter of which inspired Gus Van Sant’s Milk in 2008 (Van Sant also executive produced Howl). With Howl the duo of Epstein and Friedman tackle the oft-problematic area of the biopic.
Howl is not strictly a biopic, despite constantly entering that territory, although it could be considered in many ways to serve as a biopic of the poem Howl, rather than its author Allen Ginsberg. The film tells the story of Howl in a variety of ways. First there is the animation (designed by Eric Drooker and directed by John Hays) which illustrates the poem as it is read my Franco as Ginsberg. Secondly there are the interviews in which Franco (with a slightly unrealistic looking beard) recounts the story of Howl and his life to an unseen interviewer. Thirdly there is the court case that surrounds the potential banning of the book following the arrest of City Lights’ publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Fourthly there are sections where moments from Ginsberg’s life are recreated, including encounters with key Beat figures such as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Finally there are sequences that recreate Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl in front of an appreciative audience that includes Kerouac and Cassady, amongst other.
Despite Franco’s good, although not great, performance as Ginsberg, it is the sequences in the court room that work best in Howl. Admittedly Jon Hamm’s performance is not a stretch from Mad Men’s Don Draper but his skills as an orator on screen help him deliver his lines in court with conviction and confidence. His speeches in defense of the poem are well written (these whole sequences are based on actual court notes) and effectively delivered by Hamm. Cameos from Jeff Bridges and Mary-Louise Parker add flavour to the case but the minor nature of their roles highlights how the court case section could have perhaps made for a more interesting and compelling film and had their roles been fleshed out more, a collection of interesting characters.
The most unsuccessful strand of the film is the animation. Although reasonably well done it serves no real purpose apart from to distract from the impact of the poem. A lot of the power of the poem is in Ginsberg’s incredible use of language and the imagery that this summons up. For those in the audience experiencing Howl for the first time this is an unfortunate way to first engage with the poem as it goes far too far to explain in visual terms what Ginsberg is saying so much more interestingly in words. The court case actually involves discussion of whether people can actually understand Howl and how it can be explained. The suggestion appears to be though that one shouldn’t simply translate the poem for someone else. Why then do Epstein and Friedman choose to do this so explicitly.
The poem Howl is dynamic, exciting and incredibly important and influential but the film of the same name fails to truly convey this or build upon it to create something new and exciting. For those unfamiliar with Howl there is no better way to engage with this wonderful work of art than to read it which you can do here (and I can recommend buying a copy too – the City Lights Pocket Poets edition is excellent and affordable) or listen to a recording of Ginsberg reading it (one such recording I have embedded below).
Howl is released in UK cinemas on the 7th of January 2011.