Told with the structure of a documentary and purportedly recreated from interviews and transcripts, Howl covers the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s poem of the same name. Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ is one of the more important pieces of 20th century literature, but on its initial publication was met with cries of its depravity. Its frank allusions to drug use, sexuality (both homo- and hetero-) and general disregard for the morals of the day, as well as traditional concepts of literature, had it brought before the courts to determine its suitability as work for consumption by the public.
James Franco plays Ginsberg, interviewed by an unseen man, retelling the events and circumstances that inspired the creation of the poem, while the rest of the film details the trial, and also a series of animations visualising the thematic side of the poem, as well as a few flash-back recreations of events.
The film clearly has its heart in the right place, but is confused as to how it wants to portray itself. It uses the structure of a documentary, presumably to provide the veritas of the vents, but without the insight that the genre provides. At the same time, there’s probably not enough meat in the script to tell the story as a straight biopic dealing with the trial.
Ultimately, and it’s the biggest nail in the coffin for the film, there’s not enough sense of Ginsberg to the film; Franco’s performance is decent (although his reading of the poem starts to grate after a while) but he’s completely removed from the action of the trial by the film’s structure. The film would like to mislead you into thinking that Ginsberg himself was directly on trial (when it was actually his publishers) but because it separates him from the action there’s not much of a sense of Ginsberg as a figurehead.
Jon Hamm is also present as Jake Ehrlich, the attorney defending the poem, but due to the limitations of the script (he’s never seen outside the courtroom) and the coincidence of the time period, it’s Don Draper defending poetry – and it’s a shame, because Ehrlich is the second-biggest character in the film, and has so little to define him.
The animation used in the sections where the poem is recreated visually is intriguing well-designed, but also seems ultimately pointless; the power of ‘Howl’ is in its words and how they’re imagined, not pictures of what they represent.
The film is not terrible, just ultimately a jumble of ideas. I like the idea of presenting things with the documentary structure with a biopic framework on top of it, but it sadly doesn’t mesh properly. It’s decently performed, it’s engaging, it’s certainly a celebration of the poem itself, but just ultimately not that well put together, which is a shame.