Sundance: Howl Review

Written and Directed by: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: James Franco, Jon Hamm and David Strathairn


Howl was the opening night film at this year’s Sundance and so far it’s received incredibly mixed reviews. The mixture of styles, use of animation and narrative strands seem to have a created a love-it or hate-it reaction from audiences. I definitely fall into the first category as I enjoyed every frame and found it to be an incredibly interesting and visually absorbing film to watch.

Using Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem as the focal point of this story, Howl looks at three different aspects of the legendary poem of the Beat era. The first is the poem itself which is depicted through animation and Ginsberg reading it to an audience for the first time, the second being Ginsberg himself who we see giving an interview with a faceless reporter and lastly the obscenity trial that tried to ban the publication of Howl and prosecute its publisher. All three aspects run the length of the film and are separated stylistically.

The poem is shown through a mixture of black and white footage from the club in which Ginsberg is reading the poem and animated sequences which take on the voiceover of the performance. The interview with the reporter is shot in a beautiful green tone and is set two years after the publication of the poem with Ginsberg reflecting on it’s impact and retelling events in his life that lead up to it being written with intermittent flashbacks shown in high-contrast black and white. The trial is filmed in a fairly straightforward way and doesn’t feature Ginsberg at all, but instead is focused on the in-court dueling between the two lawyers of the case (played by Jon Hamm and David Strathairn).

This is the first narrative film from Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman who are probably best known for their incredible documentaries The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet. The film originally started out as a documentary and the filmmakers have explained that one of the reasons for the change was that there is very little of Ginsberg as a young man and I’m definitely happy that they made this choice. Ginsberg pops up in a huge amount of documentaries through archive footage but always in the later stages of his life, and most predominantly in films about the Vietnam War, hippies and ’60s culture. Showing this particular aspect of Ginsberg’s work and life gave me far more respect for him and his background and is in high contrast to the wackier depictions of him in later decades (I’m Not There being one example).


This blend of style and story is incredibly ambitious and I really felt the risk paid off. The variety really helps when jumping between storylines and periods of time and it helps you understand different aspects of the importance of the poem before, during, and after its publication. A lot of the criticism has been over the lacking of insight into Ginsberg’s life and I can understand this if you were expecting a biopic, which this definitely isn’t, and to be honest I think the title gives a clear enough indication that this isn’t what this film is about. The interview segment is the glimpse we get into the context of the poem in terms of Ginsberg as a person and I was satisfied with the amount it showed, from explanations of his time in a mental institution, his relationships with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and his struggles with his homosexuality. Based on real audio recordings, it explains particular aspects of the poem that make the segments of the reading itself far more powerful.

All the performances are excellent, Franco’s slightly unbelievable beard in the 1957 time period only slightly detracts but he holds the character extremely well throughout the film and the interview is a fantastic display of his talent. David Strathairn and Jon Hamm provide a highly comical and exciting court battle, and yes Jon Hamm is essentially playing Don Draper but it does work well. There are cameos within the court scenes by Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels; Parker is fairly forgettable but Daniels’ brief performance is excellent.

There is a huge amount going on in this film, there are even different styles within styles from framing change jump cuts within the interview segments to every method you can think of used within the animation segments and I completely disagree with the naysayers that say it’s too fragmented. It’s a visual smorgasbord, with a fantastic soundtrack and great performances, and if you sit back and go with it you’ll find yourself completely taken in by a beautifully unique way to show what simply is the story of a poem. — Charlotte

You can read more of Charlotte’s Sundance coverage over at The Documentary Blog or by following her on Twitter.

SCORE: 4 stars

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  • xego

    Sounds interesting, I have a real fascination for the “Beats” I have been sort of on the fence where Ginsberg is concerned On one hand he has penned some of the astounding verse of them all and on the other he is completely annoying with his insistence on chanting and dancing around with tambourines and bongos or what ever. I had a tough time with his joining “NAMBLA” but I guess taking it as strictly a free speech issue, I guess everyone gets free speech or it doesn’t really exist.

    I have no idea if this film will be any good or not but I applaud the idea of taking on new material…

  • Michael

    Typo. Fourth paragraph: it’s impact should be its impact. Thanks for the coverage.

  • Alan

    I saw Howl a few days ago and it is a work of genius. One of the most visually stunning and beautifully crafted films I have ever seen – it is also funny and deeply moving. Outstanding.