James Franco takes a bold stanza

Howl review

An experimentalist who challenged US conformity with androgynous audacity… But enough about James Franco.

Spiritually if not facially, he’s the perfect choice to play an awkward, vulnerable, sexually carousing Allen Ginsberg in this bio-doc hybrid revolving around the Beat titan’s epic poem.

Howl comes at its eponymous subject from all angles: the events leading up to its creation; the gay love affairs and “angel-headed hipsters” (Jack Kerouac et al) Ginsberg celebrates in its stanzas; the anti-establishment rage that fired up its legendary unveiling at a San Francisco art gallery; and the ensuing 1957 obscenity trial that almost suppressed it.

It’s a landmark piece of writing, deconstructed with exhilarating verve by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. They deploy a swerving, non-linear approach that’s in tune with Ginsberg’s experimentalism.

His early life is flashbacked in monochrome, as are addresses to an unseen interviewer; colour saturates the trial scenes; and trippy animation brings ‘howl’ to rhapsodic life.

The approach takes a toll on narrative propulsion, but Franco keeps us hooked, engaging the emotions and the mind. Whether channelling the poet’s sexual hunger, angst or intoxicated oratory at the first public reading of ‘howl’, he’s on fire.

‘Howl’ is a bedrock outburst of rebellion that, ironically, might get mocked for its overwrought Beatnik sentiments today.

But the hippest thing about Howl is the way it conveys one poem’s electrifying impact on its generation. You’ll wish you could’ve been there to hear it yourself.


A heady tribute that lets Allen Ginsberg’s Beat poem do all the talking and gives Franco another chance to shine.

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User Reviews

    • johnsmith

      Mar 1st 2011, 13:21

      James Franco is everywhere! Ive just seen 127 hours and he is indeed a great actor. Too bad he lost to the KING! bullion price

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    • AboveTheLine

      Mar 6th 2011, 23:05


      I must admit I was less impressed with Howl Mr. Mueller, though I agree the inventive use of animated sequences added rather than subtracted from the narrative that might have been rather lackadaisical otherwise. I gather from your review that you're more in favor of Franco the actor rather than specifically his role in this film - though admittedly I agree with your assessment but not necessarily how his work relates to the film. Indeed he raised the film but in all honesty the original shock value and notoriety never feels as significant as it must have been when Ginsberg first unleashed the poem to the world. I reviewed the film for my own site, Above The Line:Practical Movie Reviews and invite you to drop by and give it a read if you're interested. I found your site from a fellow blogger, Dan the mann at and look forward to exploring more from Totalfilm. best, Rory

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