The Allen Ginsberg estate wanted something commemorating the 50th anniverary of the poem Howl (1956), although the project took a little longer than expected to come to fruition. What resulted from the work of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman is a very successful movie, particularly as they had a very low budget.
Howl is a documentary, but a very unconventional documentary:
1. It is set in color in 1957 with Ginsberg (played by James Franco) talking either to a tape recorder or to unseen interviewers.
2. We see a number of court trial scenes in color - also taking place in 1957- which are reconstructions of the obscenity trail in which the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti is accused of obscenity for publishing Howl and Other Poems at his City Lights bookstore on Columbus Avenue, San Francisco.
3. There are numerous flashbacks in black and white to Ginsberg's life, in which a number of actors very briefly play well-known characters in it, such as Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Peter Orlovsky, Carl Solomon (to whom the poem is dedicated), etc: they have non-speaking roles. The main flashbacks, though, are to 7 October 1955, where Ginsberg (Franco, of course) is reading his poem to a rapt audience at the now defunct Six Gallery on Fillmore Street, San Francisco.
4. Animated sequences, in color, essentially illustrate some of the text of the poem.
On the DVD, there's a fascinating playback of the movie with Franco, Epstein, and Friedman making various comments on the making of the film and the life of Ginsberg in relation to the poem.
Bob Rosenthal, Ginsberg's secretary, once said that Howl turned Ginsberg from a boy to a man, and certainly the difference between the pre-Howl person and the 1957 person lies far more than in the growth of a beard. Not all of Ginsberg's earlier problems are mentioned in the movie, although most of them are, and a few more are added in the commentary.
Madness is a pervasive theme: Ginsberg's mother was first institutionalized from when he was six, he was intitutionalized himself, and his fear at the time of not being 'normal' because of his sexuality troubled him. But then, he was surrounded by madness: his friend Lucien Carr had killed his homosexual stalker David Kammerer; William Burroughs (accidentally) killed his wife Joan Vollmer by shooting her in the head; Tuli Kupferberg (who died just over a year ago) jumped off Manhattan Bridge in a suicide attempt; Herbert Huncke was crashing at Ginsberg's and bringing masses of stolen property there; and being barred from seeing his occasional sex partner Neal Cassady by his wife Carolyn (who'd caught him giving Neal a blow job) couldn't have helped. His life was seemingly hopelessly chaotic.
In the commentary, two 'breakthroughs' are mentioned: being inspired by Cézanne's paintings at the Met went stoned, and having a vision of William Blake while masturbating. But the appearance of his life-long lover Peter Orlovsky obviously changed his life in other respects.
Howl was the place to release the outsider scream, to let out the frustrations, speak of the traumas, spit out the madness, yell about friends, twist things in a surreal way in places, who cared, it would never be published.
And then, of course, Ferlinghetti wants to publish Howl, and the rest is history. Howl the movie represents some of Ginsberg's history, and does it brilliantly.