I didn’t catch the film’s premiere, where Sundance creator Robert Redford and Howl star James Franco set the ball rolling for this year’s fetival, but I had a chance to see the picture on Tuesday morning screening.
The film is an account of Allen Ginsberg’s creative process of Howl, one of the landmarks of 20th century’s American poetry, using threee distinct narrative threads: the poet’s biographical events immediately prior to the publication of Howl, the much publicised trial triggered by 1950s America’s conservative reaction to the alleged obscenity of the poem and an animation used as background and plastic support to Franco’s integral reading of the text.
The poem is deconstructed in seven sequences, around which the filmmakers interweave the biographical and trail scenes relevant to each part.
The result is a more than satisfying genre hybrid that, to tell the truth, tells more about the poem than about its creator.
Franco is excellent as Ginsberg in the documentary-style biopic fragment, based on an unpublished Time Magazine interview, which reflects the influences of the likes of Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady on Ginsberg’s work and the beginning of his lifelong relationship with Peter Orlovsky.
It is hard to get into the animation oddity, but once you manage to do so, it becomes an original mechanism to provide the viewer with the text that makes up the backbone of the narration.
The trial part is by far the weakest one, its scenes looking too much like an overdramatised courtroom drama, even though according to the helmers’ words in the Q&A section, dialogue is a faithful reflection of the transcripts of the real trial.
Apart from Franco in the leading role, the film features an all-star cast in more or less small parts, including David Strathairn, Mad Men Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels.
Not a conventional biopic in any sense, Howl is an engrossing account of a pivotal milestone of America’s fight for freedom of speech and an insightful portrait of one of the most celebrated members of the Beat Generation.