This is a worthy film about poetry. If you're still with us, it is specifically a film about the groundbreaking trial surrounding Allen Ginsberg's free-verse poem 'Howl'. Although considered a modern American classic nowadays, and a staple of college reading lists, it was accused by some unhip squares back in the mid-1950s of being a corrupt assault on literature - leading to Ginsberg's publisher Laurence Ferlinghetti being dragged to court on obscenity charges. Authors! See how painless it is being a controversialist? Not only will your publisher take the rap in your place, you will also benefit from the resulting publicity!
For their feature debut, writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman faithfully recreate the main attraction, with dialogue sourced from the (often laughable) trial transcripts - while also presenting a Portrait of the Poet as a Young Beatnik. There are dramatised flashbacks of encounters with fellow beats Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy, and of ‘Howl''s inaugural performance to an ecstatic, smoke-filled San Francisco coffee house crowd - poetry slam, 1955-style.
Woven into this, via a somewhat familiar conceit beloved of biopic makers, is a re-enactment of an early, real-life interview with the underground icon, brilliantly played here by James Franco. "There was no Beat Generation", a horn-rimmed, pre-beard-and-beads Ginsberg corrects his unseen interviewer. "It was just a bunch of guys trying to get published." It's a rare note of flippancy in a film otherwise genuflecting with pop-eyed reverence and earnestness for the man and his meisterwerk (roughly, one-part pretentious awfulness to two-parts genius).
Howl is a pass notes of a movie, with added cigarette smoke and be-bop. And it is ironic indeed that, while focusing on the creation, demonization and rehabilitation of such a notorious, passionate and revolutionary piece of art, the film couldn't be more mannered, restrained or bourgeois in execution. "You can't translate poetry into prose - that's why it's poetry" the defence tells the courtroom. By the same token, you might concur that animating long stretches of Ginsberg's epic - and with all-too literalised animation at that - was a conceit too far. Well, many wouldn't stanza for it.
That said, you cannot fault the filmmakers' intention, and it is a noble one: to remind present day audiences of how much prejudice Ginsberg (gay, outspoken, uncompromising) had to face; how far we have come in the interim; and how much further we have to go.