Allen Ginsberg's notorious 1955 poem "Howl" comes alive in this striking film that blends grainy black and white faux footage with animation and more conventionally shot color courtroom dramatization.
James Franco, in a career best performance as Ginsberg, recites the bulk of the epic poem throughout the film as it shifts through these alternating filmic strands in the stream of conscious manner of the original writing.
We go back and forth from Franco at his typewriter at the time of the poem's creation to being in front of a enthralled coffee house audience in 1955, and then as interview subject in his apartment in 1957 in which our subject's soft spoken answers to an unseen journalist serves as a sort of narration.
Franco's Ginsberg isn't present at the obscenity trial over the poem's content that same year, as defense lawyer Jon Hamm and prosecuting attourney David Straithairn argue whether the work has literary merit or should be deemed filth.
It's a mezmerizing ride enhanced especially by the dark animation done by Eric Drooker (also available in graphic novel form). Franco's keystrokes become musical notes that flow off the page into landscapes filled with worker drones in daunting factory settings or stacks of books that make up city skylines.
Further animated interpretations of many lines from "Howl" wind through the fractured narrative while Franco's impassioned readings flow freely.
Franco obviously studied hundreds of recordings of the real Ginsberg to get his inflections down and along with recreations of photographs and old film, "Howl" has the ring of authenticity.
Hamm uses his well honed Don Draper methods of persuasion to make the case for the poem in court under a compassionate judge played by Bob Babalan. Mary Louise Parker has a tiny cameo as an offended witness and Andrew Rogers as Lawrence Ferlinghetti doesn't have a single line but still registers in several close-ups.
The rest of the cast is pure decoration - Ginsberg's unrequited homosexual desire for Jack Kerouac (Too Rotondi) and Neal Cassady (John Prescott) give way to Aaron Tveit who becomes Ginsberg's life partner, but these relationships are dealt with as just sidelines to all the poetic action. And that's how they should be.
"Howl" is one of the year's best films and a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination for Franco. It's also a great introduction to the era in which Ginsberg's words sliced through society with a vengeance.