Harry Milburn 06/03/2011
In an era populated by Marilyn Mansons, Eminems and 50 Cents, it's all too easy to forget how contentious the use of profanities once were. Well might today's gangster rappers and heavy metal musicians bear the brunt of middle-Americas' blame for just about everything- from petty crimes to Columbines- but its marked just how much they can get away with lyrically these days.
Depending on your opinion, of course, you might think that a shame, particularly if you've ever had the misfortune of being exposed to 50 Cent in full flow (if you haven't lucky you…but it's akin to having your ear canals sandpapered by swearwords). You'd be wise to leave such conservatism at the door here, however: because 'Howl' details the proceedings of the infamous 1957 obscenity trial; and falls emphatically on the side of freedom of speech.
As a film, it's that rare bird: a biopic that is actually more about Ginsberg's 'filthy' work than the artist's life; and whilst that shouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, it does feel a bit like an opportunity missed as a result. Ginsberg's life story would hardly have required much Hollywoodizing- being as it is that of a young poet who falls in love with Kerouac, spends time in a psychiatric hospital, hangs out with junkies and writes songs with Bob Dylan; yet it takes a backseat here to poetry set to animation and the courtroom 'drama' of the obscenity trial- a 'drama' that in truth is actually about as dramatic as a mouse's fart.
In fact, the lack of screen time devoted to Ginsberg's life is doubly disappointing given that the multi-talented James Franco is so superb as Ginsberg. The casting of Time magazine's 'Coolest Man Of The Year' (perhaps most familiar as Spiderman franchise tritagonist Harry Osborn) correctly raised a few eyebrows, given that in real life Ginsberg wasn't much of a looker; but he is absolutely in his element here as the sexually repressed, awkward poet. Even get's that Top Cat-ish voice down to a tee. It's just a pity all his good work is limited primarily to a static interview situation that does little justice either to the biography of the poet or the sprawling, hallucinatory nature of his poetry.
'Howl' is certainly educational, and probably worth the time for Franco's performance alone; but if it's a Ginsberg biopic you want you won't find it here. If truth be told, 'Howl' shoots for four very different hoops- a Ginsberg biopic, a poetry recital, an archive-style interview and a courtroom drama- but largely misses all four; primarily because, for all Franco's brilliance, we're only a few clicks away from watching the real thing on YouTube anyway. Any one looking for a beat revival at the cinema would be far better placed waiting for the upcoming 'On The Road'; but Ginsberg deserves a much better biopic than he gets here.