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USA 2010
Directed by
Rob Epstein / Jeffrey Friedman
84 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Anyone looking for an account of Beat culture, subject matter which, ironically, has largely eluded American film-makers, won’t find a lot of grist for their mill here but Howl does a good job of presenting a satisfying film about a famous obscenity trial and the earnest young man at the heart of it

In the dock is Alan Ginsberg’s poem, Howl, which along with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, is one of the two iconically seminal texts of the Beat generation. The poem’s opening lines: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn" are probably as well known as the Statue of Liberty’s "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Very much in the American realist tradition of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, with "Howl" Ginsberg, was telling it how it was for his “Rebel Without A Cause” generation. And when that meant homosexuality, promiscuity, drug taking and alienation, the early 60s Establishment didn’t like it and tried to quash its publication.

The film is divided into two main interwoven parts. On the one hand is an interview with Ginsberg in his apartment, on the other is the courtroom adjudication of his poem (the trial scenes are all derived from court transcripts). These two main threads are fleshed out with James Franco as Ginsberg reading the poem in a smoke-filled beatnik coffeehouse, re-created scenes from his life and somewhat questionable animations of parts of the poem. Although having Franco play the in-real-life rather goofy-looking Ginsberg is symptomatic of the film’s tendency to glamorize its material, overall Howl although modestly scaled succeeds as a bio-pic, an account of the American justice system at work and in giving a classic American literary work a new airing.  Anyone interested in the period will not be disappointed.

DVD Extras: Audio commentary by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman and James Franco; HOLY! HOLY! HOLY! - The Making of Howl; James Franco reads Howl; Alan Ginsberg reads Howl; Theatrical trailer.

Available from: Madman




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