Howl, director Rob Epstein's biopic about Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity trial surrounding his titular poem, starts with a statement that every word in the film was actually spoken by the people portrayed, but that it's unlike a documentary in any other way.

It was an an apt opener for this interesting flick, showing through Wednesday, April 13 at FilmBar in downtown Phoenix. The movie chronicles the creation of and controversy surrounding Ginsberg's "Howl" through interviews, court transcriptions, and animated scenes.

It's visually surprising -- jumping from smoky, black and white flashback scenes to color court room scenes to flickering cartoons -- but the package is held together by the poem itself, disbursed in parts throughout the movie by actor James Franco (Freaks and Geeks, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy).

Now considered one of the greatest poems of the Beat Generation, "Howl" created a stir after it was published in 1956. Prurient people apparently couldn't get past the poem's talk of cock and balls and madness to see the societal commentary or literary merit. Much of Epstein's movie focuses on the 1957 trial of Ginsberg's publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on charges of distributing obscene literature.

The scenes of literature professors debating the merits of "Howl" on the stand are amusing, and include solid performances by Mary Louise-Parker and Jeff Daniels.

Franco does a decent job portraying the late Ginsberg, and thankfully doesn't over-dramatize the already heady, heavy material. He reads "Howl" with the same cadence and nuances Ginsberg did in recordings, and affects the same mannerisms and rhythm of speaking in the interview scenes.

The interview scenes include Ginsberg's elaborations on his life, his loves, his writing process, and the symbolism and dedications in "Howl." By the end of the film, the viewer's heard the entire poem, seen animated interpretations of its scenes, heard the writer's story, learned the outcome of the obscenity trial, and gotten pumped up about freedom of speech. And there's archival footage of the real Ginsberg singing at the end of the film, with postscripts for everybody (did you know Ginsberg helped get Jack Kerouac's On the Road published?)

Howl is definitely worth watching for poetry fans, but there's plenty of eye candy and rich metaphors for everyone. It sure beats sitting through the average open mic poetry night.

Thu., March 31, 7 & 9 p.m.; Sat., April 2, 5 & 9 p.m.; Sun., April 3, 5 & 9 p.m.; Tue., April 5, 7 & 9 p.m.; Wed., April 6, 7 & 9 p.m.; Thu., April 7, 11 p.m.; Fri., April 8, 11 p.m.; Sat., April 9, 7 p.m.; Sun., April 10, 5 & 9 p.m., 2011
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea