A movie about a poem? Seems like a strange idea right, even with a poem as famous as Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl but this is more than just a movie about a poem, this is a movie about an era, a trial and the burgeoning beat writers movement, with Ginsberg as the central figure, the glue to hold it all together.

Howl was arguably the launching pad for the beats, the moment when a new voice and a new distinct style was heard but Ginsberg and the others weren’t really prepared for the uproar it would create. In 1957 City Lights Press and publisher/poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti were taken to court for obscenity and this film is as much about the trial and free speech as it is about Ginsberg (who incidentally wasn’t taken to court).

Filmed in a documentary style with Ginsberg played by James Franco (Pineapple Express, Freaks and Geeks) talking us through his life, interspersed with trial footage and stanzas from the poem itself, using colour, black and white and animation, the film surprisingly keeps a fair pace, never really dropping away, and considering it’s essentially a bunch of talking heads, that is no mean feat.

The only problem I really had was the animated computer graphics used to illustrate the poem, that damn near derailed the movie for me but I just turned away when the dumb ass stuff came up. Why do that when you have an actor the caliber of Franco holding the film together? Even if he does occasionally look like a bespectacled Adam Ant he was still such a strong presence that the animation just looked stupid in comparison.

Will this movie make converts? I don’t know, it is after all a bunch of talking heads and in this day and age that might not be enough. But for those with an interest in the beats, in Ginsberg, in poetry, this is a no brainer, you need it. For those perhaps curious about what all the fuss was about, well this is the second place to go, after you’ve bought Howl which is still in print from City Lights.

Personally I always thought Allen Ginsberg was a touch overrated, now I’m not so sure, so I guess Howl has already got one convert. You might well be the next one.

There’s a bunch of extras including commentary, trailer, “Franco reads Howl”, “Ginsberg reads Howl”, the most interesting being Holy! Holy! Holy! – a great little 40 minute documentary about the making of the film, including such simple things as getting the sets right, the costumes, the filming… an interesting look behind the scenes.

Howl is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

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