Sundance Review: James Franco’s ‘Howl’

The beats are alive and well thanks to a soaring performance by James Franco in the Sundance opener, “Howl.” Debuting to a predictably packed house at the Eccles theater in Park City, writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman unveiled their ode to the late Allen Ginsberg in a 90-minute mash-up of black and white, color, cartoon, and archival footage.

While not a standard issue biopic, “Howl” ably traverses some of the key points in the poet’s life–namely the 1957 obscenity trial surrounding his most famous work. Zigzagging through time, the film is essentially narrated by Ginsberg himself through recreations of interviews, court transcripts, and most notably his powerful reading of “Howl.”

Franco’s full-bodied portrayal is often mesmerizing to behold, never more so then when he’s reading from the seminal work. It’s in these extended readings, which employ the majority of the film’s fanciful animated sequences, that the film truly takes flight. Put simply, Ginsberg’s words are a treasure to savor and Franco does them great service, abetted by the surreal imagery Epstein and Friedman have conjured up.

That being said, “Howl” feels a bit stiff in the courtroom scenes that pepper the narrative. It’s no fault of any of the fine supporting cast, namely Jon Hamm as the attorney for the defense and Jeff Daniels as a memorably pompous professor. No amount of courtroom histrionics could hope to rival the words at the film’s core.