James Franco in HOWL, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
HOWL is not an Allen Ginsberg biopic but something at once trickier and more modest: a celebratory adaptation of his most famous poem. For their first fiction feature, the veteran documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (THE CELLULOID CLOSET, PARAGRAPH 175) have recruited a lineup of top-tier collaborators: an all-star cast led by James Franco, cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Therese DePrez, composer Carter Burwell. As you’d expect, HOWL looks and sounds terrific. But the prudent insistence on documentary fidelity — the film was in fact conceived as a doc — is restrictive, even perverse. Just about every line you hear comes from HOWL itself, or is adapted from interviews that Ginsberg gave after its publication and from court records of the 1957 obscenity trial against City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti that ensured the poem’s immortality.