Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Starring James Franco, Aaron Tveit, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels, Alessandro Nivola. 85 mins.
Rating: Four and a half/Five
In cinemas February 25
A man sits on a couch, hidden behind Woody Allen style glasses and a haze of cigarette smoke, and in a drawn-out growl asserts “Poetry is a rhythmic articulation of feeling.” A quote has never lent itself so easily to a film’s description. In Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman’s Howl, the iconic work of poet Allen Ginsburg is explored and evoked through four disparate, nonlinear and uniquely styled strands that captivatingly weave themselves together into something a little bit beautiful.
James Franco plays Ginsburg, the controversial beat poet whose 1955 poem was deemed obscene, and put on trial. Franco is pitch-perfect, capturing not the only the slightly awkward, affected mannerisms of the intellectual poet but every drawling cadence of his distinctive voice. As he gestures and chainsmokes his way through a revealing interview, he frankly describes his immature infatuations with unavailable men, his relationship with Jack Kerouac, the inspiration for ‘Howl’ and his belief that there was in fact no beat generation, “just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”
Accompanied by stylized flashbacks, this comprises merely one of the mesmerizing threads of Howl. We are also shown the distinguished Jon Hamm and wonderfully prudish David Strathairn cross-examine numerous literary critics in their laughable quest to discern whether Howl had any merit or was merely the obscene, dangerous and formless ramblings of a delinquent. These scenes are intercut with a black and white re-enactment of Ginsberg reading Howl to an enraptured audience in a smoke-filled club, as well as hypnotisingly surreal animated sequences of sections of the poem.
This unique combination of different styles and form could initially seem contrived, erratic or even messy, but as gorgeous jazz music and Ginsburg’s words permeate the film, Howl falls into its own wonderful, intoxicating rhythm, and acts not only as a character study and a social commentary, but a wildly experimental and seductive art form. Just like its source material.
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