The film sprouting from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" could have been a documentary compiled from interviews, casting smoky light on the late poet's inspirations. It could have been a courtroom drama re-creating the McCarthy-era obscenity trial that followed the landmark poem's publication. Or it could have been some far-flung animated representation of Ginsberg's long-breathed, flowing, sometimes brutal images of "the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness." So which approach would much-honored documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman choose?
The answer is Yes.
All three angles are twisted into the film's shape. James Franco plays the young Ginsberg circa the poem's debut and subsequent controversy. We see (and hear) him at the initial public reading in 1955 San Francisco and in flashbacks reflecting some of his important relationships with other seminal Beat figures such as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. An imagined interview also unearths foundations of "Howl" — Ginsberg's loves and lusts; his failures and repression; his mother's lobotomy; his own time in a mental ward; the harrowing journey of a fellow patient.
These pieces are intercut with courtroom scenes reenacted from trial transcripts in which a notoriously conservative judge ( Bob Balaban) must weigh the interests of protecting society from obscenity and protecting freedom of expression. A parade of good actors (including David Strathairn, the ubiquitous Jon Hamm and Mary-Louise Parker in a hilarious, all-too-brief appearance) brings the crucial debate to life.