As suggested by its title, Allen Ginsberg’s game-changing poem “Howl” is essentially performative — so is Howl, the Sundance-opening quasi-biographical movie by Oscar-winning documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.
Howl the movie not only touches on Ginsberg’s early life (and successful coming-out) but also dramatizes the poem’s obscenity trial, the talk of San Francisco in late 1957. It’s broadly played by a number of name actors: David Strathairn (baffled prosecuting attorney), Jon Hamm (cool defense attorney), Bob Balaban (judge), Jeff Daniels (laughable expert witness for the prosecution), Mary-Louise Parker (ditto), and Treat Williams (professorial defense witness Mark Schorer). Most compelling by far is James Franco as Ginsberg, successfully nailing the poet’s incantatory style, even while providing that voice with a movie star’s glamorous vessel.
Splendid as Franco’s literal characterization and overheated line readings can be, art director Eric Drooker’s literal-minded animated interpretation of “Howl” (haunted vortex of lonely crowd alienation, “what now little man?” monochromatic fascist madness) are as sodden as a cold latke — as well as a distraction.
Basically, Epstein and Friedman are feel-good filmmakers — their Ginsberg has one of the shortest, most successful bouts of psychotherapy in history. But is it really necessary to affirm the poem’s ecstatic footnote (“Holy! Holy! Holy!”) with a montage of smiling reaction shots?