Howl DVD/Blu-Ray Review
Most biopics or films based on real events take judicious liberties with the subjects and incidents they are portraying for dramatic or comedic effect, the makers of Howl instead stuck strictly to the source material. And for good reason as the film focuses on both one of the most dramatic pieces of poetry to come out of the 20th century, but also the controversy surrounding its publication in 1956. The publisher of the work, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, was brought to trial on obscenity charges after 500+ copies of the book coming in to the country from the printers were seized.
Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman, co-directors of Howl who are also responsible for the peerless documentaries The Times Of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet, take a non-fiction approach to bringing the poem and the trial to screen. They use actors for all the parts in the film, most notably James Franco who embodies the voice and diction of the late Allen Ginsberg, but all the dialog is taken from transcripts of the trial, and an interview with the poet from the same year.
It’s a brilliant concept made even more so by the interweaving of recreations of key events in Ginsberg’s life, including the famous 1955 performance of “Howl” by the poet, and animated scenes that follow the furious and heady imagery of the work that were inspired by a graphic novel treatment of “Howl”. Epstein and Friedman succeed in making the poem feel as vibrant and alive onscreen as it is on the page, with passages soaring through the widescreen space trailing smoke and fire in their wake (figuratively speaking, of course). And they find the key moments of the trial that dig deep into the debate over free speech and obscenity, a discussion that still rages on today. It inspires as it thrills and will likely send you floating to your local bookseller to pick up your own copy of “Howl And Other Poems”.
Blu-ray notes from Nick Lyons
From the stock footage and B&W footage to the animation and the interviews (in color), the 1.85:1 1080p picture quality is very sharp looking. You can’t ask for a better Blu-ray transfer than this.
The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track sounded a little distant in spots (especially at the beginning when Franco speaks rather quietly). A PCM 2.0 audio track is also included which I think actually sounds stronger. That distant audio problem doesn’t exist on this track.
It should be noted that the Blu-ray set contains some exclusive features. There’s a DVD copy of “Howl,” footage of the real Allen Ginsberg reading 3 stories at the Knitting Factory, and a Q&A with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman from the Provincetown Film Festival. John Cameron Mitchell hosts/moderates the panel.
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