Documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman attracted Hollywood talent, far and wide, for this film, had an epic poem and a classic culture clash as their subject and still produced a corpse from it.
Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams and Bob Balaban show up in the courtroom scenes, playing the academics, lawyers (Hamm vs. Strathairn) and judge (Balaban) who debated Ginsberg’s work, the poem that begins, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…”
Of that courtroom cast (Ginsberg never attended his own trial), Parker comes off best, playing a prim, clueless critic who complains that the poem “has no literary merit,” that it lacks “moral greatness” thanks to its “crude…gutter speech.”
The actors portraying the Beats, from Franco at his most callow to assorted others lacking the charisma or energy to be interesting versions of Jack Kerouac or Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Neal Cassady, further hamper the film. The filmmakers have de-mythologized the Beats and their era. And their movie the poorer for it.
Epstein and Friedman focus on Ginsberg’s search for love as a gay man in the gay underground of the 1950s. They don’t so much ignore his gift for word jazz as lose track of it in capturing his shy frustration with the flirtatious Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and his quiet joy at finding his great love, Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tvelt).
Animation that isn’t quite right for the period illustrates the poem, which we hear both at its inaugural performances and sampled in court. The poem’s debut, however mundane it may have seemed to eyewitnesses, should be the movie’s thunderclap moment. It’s a yawner.
Tape recorded interviews with Franco as Ginsberg and documentary film footage of the clubs and nationwide Beat scene give the film its historical footing. But the poem is used repititiously, the court scenes are mundane if occasionally amusing re-enactments of the actual transcripts and the whole never gathers the energy to spark to life.
That makes “Howl” faintly interesting as history without capturing the heat, passion and manic fervor of its creation and creator. Anybody who ever saw or heard the mercurial, evangelical Ginsberg read the piece will be most let down by this, a “Howl” that’s closer to a meek whine in tone, tenor and volume.
Cast: James Franco, Mary Louise Parker, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Aaron Tvelt
Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes
Rating: unrated, adult subject matter, profanity.