By James Burbidge


Howl is not something you’re supposed to do. Well, actually howling is ok, but making a biographical film about a writer and a particular piece of writing is not. How do you dramatise the process of writing? How do you make that singular, solitary activity accessible to a room full of strangers? When you biopic (yes, it’s a verb now) a musician, or a dancer you’re allowed wonderfully emotive scenes of them delicately learning their craft and a final moments of them letting rip to either a crowd of a) delirious fans or b) non-believers (often including parents) who are finally won over. What do you have in a film about a writer? Someone sitting at a desk – about the most dynamic you can get is the tapping of a typewriter. Fincher made it work, but only just.

So how does Howl, the story of American poet Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem, get around this? Well, in a variety of successful ways. Divided into three scenarios, the main story is that of the obscenity charge and ensuing court case against the publisher of Howl. Here we have Jon Hamm (Don Draper from Mad Men) defending the poem against David Strathairn’s prosecution. In the second section James Franco portrays Ginsberg in interview at home. The third section segues between Ginsberg reading the poem in a packed basement bar and animations that take his words into flights of visual fancy.

It’s these animations that really set the film apart: they are developed by the artist Eric Drooker book Illuminated Poems which put his illustrations to Ginsberg’s work. Surreal and usually non-literal, the images follow the soul of the poem as it roams around New York and across America to Denver. Peopled by angels, cadavers, monstrous buildings and cloned commuters the images bring colour, life and movement to what might otherwise be a somewhat staid film.

James Franco turns in another impressive performance and the documentary background of directors Epstein and Friedman shines through strong and clear. Deftly weaving animation through a courtroom drama and the talking head of an interview this film is a slice of history, a character study and a piece of performance poetry all rolled into one and  raised to another level.

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About The Author

James Burbidge James performs a plethora of tasks for Raindance; writing articles, editing the newsletter, managing Twitter, helping on courses, organising volunteers and running the script services are but a few of the ones he is allowed to tell you about.
When he isn’t daydreaming about daylight he watches films (well, duh!) reads a bit, writes a bit and kicks arse at ultimate Frisbee.




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