The movie opens in black and white with a bespectacled poet adjusting his glasses and preparing to read. In the audience, college kids drink wine from glass jugs and blow cigarette smoke dramatically skyward. The poet begins. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” It’s Allen Ginsberg (James Franco), the poem is Howl, and this is the point at which a traditional biopic would flash back to Ginsberg’s childhood, then proceed forward in a dutiful, linear manner, detailing all the events that led the man to create the work. Instead, filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman make the convention-defying, refreshing choice to focus on Ginsberg’s art, not his biography. We get little of his childhood, a smidgen of his personal relationships, and nothing of the 40-odd years he lived after Howl made him famous. By devoting their movie to Ginsberg’s poem (and the obscenity trial it engendered), the filmmakers avoid all the pitfalls of so many formulaic biopics and create a response to a work of art that is art itself.
In 1955, a gay, Jewish, self-doubting 29-year-old wrote a raw, ragged, personal ode to bohemia, homosexuality, interracial sex, drugs, and the American landscape, dedicating it to a boy he had met during a stay in a mental institution. As a piece of writing, Howl is arrestingly visual, but its de-tractors found the meaning behind the often rude images difficult to parse: according to the prosecutor in the obscenity trial, the poem could have literary value only if the words were metaphors, but he couldn’t figure out what they symbolized, beyond their obvious sexual content.
The film Howl is structured in three parts: a reenactment of the trial (the weakest aspect of the film, due in large part to the distracting star quality of Jon Hamm as the defense attorney), scenes of Ginsberg talking to a reporter (which sketch out his basic biography), and the poem itself. Unlike Hamm, who never sheds his Don Draper–ness, Franco disappears into Ginsberg’s sexy earthiness. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to have him enact scenes from the poem, sweating through withdrawal in a furnished room in Newark, or throwing potato salad at City College dadaists. But that would have reduced the poem to autobiography, a gossipy, pedantic recitation of Ginsberg and his cohorts’ exploits. Instead, Epstein and Friedman set the poem to animation by Eric Drooker, who collaborated with Ginsberg in the past. The frenetic, high-contrast black-and-white pictures, featuring a stick-figured protagonist navigating a swirling, ever-changing universe, expand an often painfully personal poem about (among other things) one man’s unrequited love into a visual metaphor for the alienation of an entire generation.
Most biopics make outsize, unconventional lives hew to a narrow, conventional form, which is probably why so many of their narratives succumb to a flat sameness. The subjects invariably suffer as children, find catharsis through art/politics/activism, are distracted by the hollow comforts of fame, and finally are redeemed when they return to their core beliefs (cf. Funny Girl, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Bugsy, Chaplin, Malcolm X, Nixon, The People vs. Larry Flynt, The Hurricane, Man on the Moon, Ali, Ray, Frida, Walk the Line, Milk, and every TV movie about Elvis). It’s as though the filmmakers don’t trust the subjects’ accomplishments to speak for themselves and worry that their achievements are impressive only if they are accompanied by compelling personal backstories. Biography trumps creativity, as every subject becomes a Charles Foster Kane, motivated by a childhood Rosebud that explains his or her adult triumphs and weaknesses. But what matters about a work like Howl is not who wrote it but why it resonated in the time it was made, and why it still has meaning today. Great art transcends its creator. In this case, it also lays the foundation for a great film.