Mad Men star John Hamm sells himself in Allen Ginsberg biopic Howl ~ preview

Posted on 14 January 2011
By Matt Barden
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“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterically naked…”
Howl is the bio-dramatic hybrid baby of film makers Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman.

The pair have watched the world turn for eight years since being asked by the Ginsberg estate to make a documentary celebrating the 50th anniversary of the poem.

But the resulting film is now here to bring to life Ginsberg’s epic counter culture poem for a new generation.

James Franco shines as Allen Ginsberg, nailing his voice patterns and movements, yet again showing his range and acting pedigree.

The film follows four interwoven segments; the 1957 Obscenity trial of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who first published the work, a Ginsberg interview for Time magazine, the 1955 unveiling of the epic poem and an animated interpretation of Howl itself.

“Who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts…”

In Howl, Ginsberg dealt with homosexuality, drug use, mental illness and religion, themes that landed the publishers with an obscenity law suit in 1957.

John Hamm (of Mad Men fame) plays attorney Jake Ehrlich, tasked with convincing the justice system that the poem has artistic and cultural relevance.

Ehrlich and Ferlinghetti went on to win their trial and, fuelled by the publicity and infamy, Ginsberg became one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary poets. Associated with other Beat writers of the time, notably Jack Kerouac (who is briefly portrayed in the film) and William Burroughs, the film slightly lets itself down by isolating Ginsberg and not developing relationships between other literary figures.

The film relies on interviews and first-hand accounts to make up the dialogue, and apart from the dramatization of the trial, makes most of what we hear and see on screen as true to life as possible for a film. The Ginsberg interview is a collage of actual footage and provides the platform for Franco to steal the show, immersing himself in the character. Talking directly to the viewer Franco’s Ginsberg tells his side of his own story, and we capture a glimpse of a truly remarkable man.

“who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but were prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sunrise…”

In 1955 at San Francisco’s Six Gallery, Ginsberg sounded a battle cry to a disgruntled generation. The first reading of Howl echoed the beginnings of the Beat generation and Americans who were caught in the midst of the Cold War found a new voice.

This part of the film is shown as black and white flashbacks and gives a glimpse of the era Ginsberg lived in and the people he met. However, this is a very fleeting glimpse and you feel it leaves you wanting more, this maybe a bit much to ask from a film that only runs slightly under 90 minutes but with such a lot of his life left unexplored you can’t help but feel slightly disappointed.

The poem itself is brought to life on screen through an almost trippy animation sequence (think This Way Up meets Yellow Submarine). It takes a bit of getting used to but once you do it compliments the narration of the poem and keeps in line with Ginsberg as a character and his life, a bit off beat and a bit whacky, but it works.

The acting is solid, the story interesting and Epstein and Freidman do a fantastic job of keeping the action moving without exaggerating the truth. You feel like you’re learning something but they never lose you in facts or boredom.

We hope the film will bring Howl and Ginsberg to a new generation.

“O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free.”

Howl is released in cinemas on February, 25.
Official Site:
Written & Directed: Rob Epstein & Jeffery Friedman
Starring: James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn.