Howl (3 stars)


Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman examine Allen Ginsberg's controversial poem, with James Franco in the lead role

(15) 84min

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who both worked on 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk) were originally commissioned by the Allen Ginsberg estate to make a documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of Ginsberg’s most celebrated (and notorious) poem, Howl. Epstein and Friedman missed their deadline by three years because of the strange, incantatory nature of the poem at the heart of the film and the astonishing level of research they did as preparation.

The resulting ode is a peculiar beast that is neither documentary nor straight literary adaptation. What the filmmakers have tried to do is to resurrect the poem from its now established status of ‘classic’, wrench it from the hallowed halls of academia and replace it within its proper, historical context.

The juxtaposition of James Franco’s passionate, mercurial and intelligent reading of Howl with a recreation of the court case that surrounded its emergence (the trial of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti for printing ‘obscene’ material) helps to remind us of just how iconoclastic and controversial Ginsberg’s work was. Strange as this may make America of the 1950s look, this is still the land that most recently contested gay marriage in one of its courtrooms. In this sense, Howl emerges as a poem for and of our own time (perhaps the most vital test of great ‘literature’). The occasionally clumsy animated translation of the poem is overly literal but still diverting, and Epstein and Friedman should be commended for bringing Howl to a new generation.

GFT Fri 11–Thu 17 Mar Filmhouse Fri 25–Thu 31 Mar.


  • 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.

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