Sundance opener Howl dramatises obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg's poem

Sundance opener Howl dramatises Allen Ginsberg obscenity trial

Cast includes James Franco, Jeff Daniels, Mad Men's Jon Hamm and The West Wing's Marie-Louise Parker

One of the most eagerly anticipated films of 2011 in the UK is Howl, which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and is finally due to hit UK cinemas on February 25 2011.

Howl, written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, takes its name from the Allen Ginsberg poem of the same name and is set among the events of the famous obscenity trial that the poem faced in San Francisco in 1957. The poem Howl was written in the summer of 1955 and threw Ginsberg into the public limelight as the leader for the American Beat Generation, also spearheaded by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. The Beat Generation were famous for being highly influenced by a cocktail of jazz-rhythm, sexual orientations, spirituality mind-altering drugs and liquor. Howl is a haunting, sprawling poem which echoes Ginsberg's expanding stream of consciousness as he laments the destruction of 'the best minds' of his generation, the poets and drifters, who have been ruined by 'Moloch'- a representation of evil forces of capitalism, war and government. It was Ginsberg's open protest against what America had become. His explicit references to homosexuality created the scandal with the US customs and resulted in the arrest of his publishers and the trial of the book.

The film boasts a strong cast with James Franco (127 Hours) starring as Ginsberg and attorney Jake Ehrlich played by Jon Hamm, in one of his first major roles since the success of Mad Men, in which he plays Don Draper. Also starring is Jeff Daniels and Marie-Louise Parker who starred in The West Wing.

As for the film, reviews suggest that the dramatization of the trial works well against the animation elements of the film that depict the lurid and expansive lyrics of Howl, creating images akin to a nightmare experience - which is precisely what Ginsberg and his contemporaries felt they were living in. With the government issuing threats of nuclear war and the political anxiety imposed by McCarthyism, the poets and artists escaped into an alternative world fuelled by hallucinogenic drugs, which invites the question: given the circumstances, which reality was better to live in? After a long trial, during which citizens backed Ginsberg for his defense of free speech, 'Howl' was eventually exonerated on the grounds that it was a masterpiece of redeeming social importance.

Here's the trailer and a John Hamm interview.


  • 3 stars
  • 2010
  • US
  • 15
  • Directed by: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
  • Written by: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
  • Cast: James Franco, Aaron Tveit, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Prescott, Alessandro Nivola, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams

James Franco's passionate and intelligent reading of Allen Ginsberg's Howl is placed alongside a recreation of the obscenity trial of its publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The animated translation of the poem is overly literal, but kudos to the filmmakers for bringing Ginsberg's work to a new generation.