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In tune with the beats

HOWL IS not greater than its subject. Nor is it as raw and pulsating mad. What makes it a great film is that it doesn’t try that either. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film is a measured homage to the life and times of Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl. It reins in its awe and enables its subject to emerge in resplendent glory. The ingredients are basic — an extended interview with Ginsberg about the poem, the obscenity trial that followed its publication and a recitation of the poem. Almost every word is from authentic documentation. Only a thin veil of enactment separates the feature from its pedagogic cousin — documentary.

This is where the excellence of its lead actors factors in. James Franco as Ginsberg, David Strathairn as the regressive prosecutor and John Hamm as the inspired defence counsel put in the work that transforms fact into cinema. Animating the poem into dream-like sequences is the weakest link in this innovation. It was poor judgement to restrict the potential imagery of the words to clog with mediocre visuals, the space that could have brilliant visions.

But a young Ginsberg’s persona towers over the film’s shortcomings. He is honest, he is brilliant and he is thinking up his best ideas on camera. This is the prodigy becoming himself — almost about to scale the peak. Decades later, the accumulated weight of time and legend would chip away the edges of Ginsberg’s early constructive madness. Years later, some of these ideas would degenerate into newage clichés. But the film urges us not to take either for granted.


It opens into the inception of ‘Beatniks’ — a generation that challenged the mores of literature and society, widening the scope for almost everything we envision today. These were guys who shook everything up at the risk of their sanity so the future could have a different shape. It was not easy being sexual — let alone homosexual. It was not easy to wean literary forms from literary norms and plug them into a jazz-rhythmic articulation of the gut of a lost generation. It was not easy to hold them up philosophically to represent the unfortunate condition of all mankind. In expressing the difficulties and charms of being Ginsberg, the film also becomes a crucial document of modern history. Because history is more than events curated in formalin jars — it is the anxiety and dreams of people gone by. And by making you listen to that wonder poem at the heart of it, this film delivers a high only the infinity of possibilities can.

Originally published in Tehelka.

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