Beat Poetry hasn’t sung on screen to any particular note, but now Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is set for our cinemas with Sam Riley starring and Walter Salles directing. Before that we have Howl, an Allen Ginsberg biopic that’s as gauche, eccentric and playful as its protagonist. And no, these aren’t necessarily positive attributes.

The film takes us through various scenarios, asking the audience for both patience and an open mind, much the same way as Ginsberg’s work did. James Franco plays the poet beautifully in all of them. Whether it’s his languid voice reciting Ginsberg’s work in a crowded bar or his itchy presence, squirming in a chair for a mock one-on-one interview, he envelops the character impressively. In fact his striking performance is the best thing about this disjointed film by a country mile, and, unusually, its lack of coherence is both its strength and downfall.

Take the obscenity trial that Ginsberg’s work is subjected to, for instance. A strange disjointed affair which dispels of Franco at the heart of the film, and we leaves us with Jon Hamm and David Strathairn – two fine actors entirely wasted in a stale, anticlimactic scene that manages to slow a film already at snail’s pace. Then we have the animation, so effective in the stunning opening titles but overused and repetitive in the bulk of the movie.

There is plenty to admire though, especially as Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein originally set out to make a straight documentary. The demented hybrid we are left with is a result of two guys overshooting their deadline by three years, a feat any beat poet would be proud of.

Howl is of course Ginsberg’s epic poem of the same name that he famously released upon an astonished audience in 1955. A stunning affront to bourgeois, middle class values, its jazz rhythm and homosexual undertones shocked most at the time. The film’s blatant disregard to follow convention is a commendable nod towards its source; unfortunately it renders the final product as a forgettable oddity. What’s great though is I don’t think the film-makers or true Ginsberg enthusiasts will actually care.

By Ian Roebuck

Originally published in issue 26 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. March 2011