Howl review

James Franco takes a bold stanza

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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.