It's San Francisco in 1957, and an American masterpiece of poetry is put on trial. This dark moment is recounted using three interwoven threads: the tumultuous life events that led a young Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) to find his true voice as an artist, society's reaction, and animation that echoes the poem's surreal style.

Hip-cat hybrid has middling results.

Allen Ginsberg’s epic mid-1950s beat poem, a 'howl" of pain, frustration and explicit gay sexual longing, is regarded as one of the key moments in the birth of the post-WWII counter-culture. Today, it seems remarkable that a mere poem could have had such a cultural impact, albeit indirectly. There’s a line that leads from Ginsberg and his friend Jack Kerouac to the abstract poetics of Blonde on Blonde Dylan, the spontaneous jazz aesthetics of John Cassavetes’ films, especially Shadows, and the birth of the hippies in the same city that gave birth to the beats, San Francisco.

That would be a fascinating subject for a documentary. Howl is not that film. Instead the noted documentary team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk; The Celluloid Closet) have turned in a hybrid with an original form, a weave of conventional docudrama and free-flowing animation. While they quote Ginsberg’s summing up of Howl as not so much about homosexuality as 'frankness", an opening of new pathways for more honest artistic expression, it’s clear they’re drawn to Ginsberg above all for his key role in bringing gayness out of the cultural closet.

In one of the two docudrama parts, James Franco plays the young Ginsberg, either speaking to an invisible interviewer, his 'dialogue" pieced together from actual interviews, or reading his poem aloud in San Francisco at its public premiere in 1955. The second part is a recreation of the obscenity trial of Howl’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, using court transcripts. Finally, a team of animators interpret Ginsberg’s verse, which is read aloud by Franco.

The film’s jigsaw construction initially lends an air of freshness and unpredictability, but as the film moves forward the lack of any overarching thematic structure or emotional dynamism becomes a problem. In essence, it’s a short film spun out into feature-length.

Ultimately, too, there’s awkwardness about the way the different elements sit together. For a film celebrating an iconoclast, it’s odd to find the courtroom scenes (which mostly consist of expert witnesses arguing over the poem’s literary merit) so conventional. Not until 40 minutes into the running time do we discover why Mad Men’s Jon Hamm is sitting there passively rolling his eyes (he eventually turns out to be Ferlinghetti’s defence counsel) – a sign that Epstein and Friedman are a little out of their depth in the staging of dramatic scenes.

In the most compelling performance, Jeff Daniels plays a literary professor dismissing Howl. We only know he’s the 'bad guy’ because of his cocksure manner – his arguments are hardly outrageous or scandalous. There goes real life again, paling in comparison to the drama we expect in fiction.

Franco gives a creditable performance, which is just as well, because the decision to cast such a pin-up to play the ungainly poet – and I’m putting that gently – is ridiculous, something you’d expect from a more crassly commercial film.

So the rest hangs on the poem. Its historical significance is established beyond a doubt, the question is whether it speaks to audiences today. The animation is technically impressive, but at its best is a mixed success. If you feel like this reviewer – always admired what the beats stood for, couldn’t stand what they actually wrote – this film may not change your mind.

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1 hour 24 min
In Cinemas 10 March 2011,
Wed, 06/01/2011 - 11