Howl Review


Genre: Arthouse/Experimental/Drama/Biopic
Director: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Featuring: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn
Running Time: 81 minutes
Available for purchase at: Madman Online Store ($34.95)


Sometimes, a film requires a monstrous attention span, a plethora of concentration, and multiple viewings in order to understand it in its entirety. Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Howl, is one that requires several re-readings to fully comprehend, and Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seem to have successfully translated this onto the screen.

The film Howl is one part life story, one part flashback, and one part courtroom drama. While together, they perhaps do not project the most accurate or cohesive reflects of Ginsberg’s life, there is still a degree of arthouse charm that lives within the film and gives us what can certainly be called a unique experience.


The film is separated into three different and key sections: Ginsberg’s reciting of the poem, Ginsberg reflecting upon his younger self and his inspiration to write Howl (accompanied by flashbacks to said self), and the court case that sparked from the poem. For those who don’t know the history behind the poem, here’s a brief run-down: Ginsberg’s poem, Howl, was published in 1956 as a part of the Beat generation of poets. Upon the release, the publisher was charged with disseminating obscene literature, and went to court.

The court scenes in the film were relatively weak.

The film is similar to many other contemporary films, in the respect that the narrative can be confusing to follow. The voice-over of the poem is interspersed throughout the film in its respective four parts – with each part correlating to a related flashback or court scene -, whereas Ginsberg’s reflection on his younger self is told in an interview with an unknown person. It does require a few viewings to fully comprehend as it is a complex film, but the shifting from one narrative point to another was a unique and layered experience.

While the film is more like a maze than a straight road, the narrative style really works well. The poem adds a great strength to the story, and when it is told in correlation to Ginsberg’s life story it really layers the narrative and adds a deeper level of understanding to the entire film. With that being said, however, Howl was actually let down by its courtroom scenes where the validity of the poem was being discussed. The rest of the film had a certain tone of uplift and nostalgia; the courtroom had clichés, weak dialogue by the prosecution lawyer (who really made it seem like there was no case), and just didn’t fit in with the experimental aspects of the narrative.


Within the film, there are several characters which come and go as secondary ones (the lawyers, and people involved in Ginsberg’s life), but Ginsberg (James Franco) is the central figure. Franco does a superb job at capturing Ginsberg’s voice and his idiosyncrasies, and although his character was explored in more depth as I would have liked it – thank you again, poorly constructed courtroom scenes – there was enough in there to satisfy most viewers. Ginsberg’s younger self and his present self were contrasted well: his younger self housed all the traits of a man who was at a crossroads with his sexuality, writing, and discovery of self, while the present Ginsberg shows a mature writer who stands by his work – and his past.

Ginsberg recites his famous poem.

The other characters are only briefly introduced, and are really only a fleeting image designed to take the film away from its monologue roots. However, in these brief performances none of the actors really showed how much they can shine – not even Jon Hamm, who played the defendant’s lawyer Jake Ehrlich. With very little character development and a poorly written script for all aspects which didn’t directly involve Ginsberg, it was hard to have any break from the central focus of Franco’s character.


As Howl is an experimental film, the visual elements are to be commended as unique and wonderful – although it is a question of whether or not they fully fit in with the rest of the film. Flashbacks to Ginsberg’s younger self are shown in black and white; the interview with him has a blue-green filter, the court scenes are saturated in yellows; meanwhile, when Ginsberg is reading his poem the film will often show an animated segment which puts images to the words.

Doesn’t Franco look lovely here as a young Ginsberg?

The animated segments are perhaps the most interesting, and make the poem come alive. Ranging from 3D rendering to images which look like they have been plucked from a Monet painting, Howl truly plays with the use of the voice and animation to break up the figures in the film. This experiment is bold, but – when combined with every other visual element in the film – can become overwhelming. While it was a good move in part to visualise the poem, Epstein and Friedman may have thrown too much in there for audiences this time.

In terms of the audio elements, the number one aspect I need to comment on is Franco’s voice. He nailed Allen Ginsberg’s tone and his inflections, and although it may sound odd to some, the voice contributed to his convincing portrayal of the poet. The soundtrack of the film also did its job well; the backing music with the animated scenes worked in enhancing the emotions of the poem.

DVD Extras

The DVD is jam-packed full of extras: audio commentary with Epstein, Friedman, and Franco, a “making of” segment, and two shorts titled “Ginsberg reads Howl” and “Franco reads Howl”. If there’s nothing else to say, it definitely made me feel like the DVD was value for money.

The audio commentary was probably, to me, the most intriguing part as it gives insight not only to what the directors’ intentions were, but also allows us as an audience into the mind of James Franco. As I mentioned earlier, the film is quite complex to grasp in its entirety to begin with, so re-watching it with commentary really helps.

Aside from the commentary, the “making of” was interesting to have but not really necessary for me (I was exhausted after the film finished for a second time, anyway). “Ginsberg reads Howl” is also a good reference point as a comparison to Franco’s rendition, and really reflects how Franco managed to capture much of Allen Ginsberg’s tendencies in speech.

Final Comments

Howl is a film which truly does experiment with many aspects of film; however, in experimenting Epstein and Friedman seem to have taken it too far and created a film that is often disjointed and weak structurally. While watching the film is a unique experience and requires a bit of mulling over in order to get the full picture, I’d have to say I’m quite certain that Howl, the film, is not going to be remembered in history like its namesake poem was.

I give Howl


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