Howl, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s feature film based on Allen Ginsberg’s landmark poem and the free-speech battle it triggered, opens today. The toughest part of the film — creating a dramatic reading of the poem that’s as powerful as one of Ginsberg’s readings — might be the most successful. James Franco’s performance of the poem is strange, sexy, tragic, and spastically hilarious, as he inhabits Ginsberg’s odd rhythms and, yes, uses his matinee good looks to capture the 29-year-old poet’s “great Jewish nebbishy sex appeal of that time,” as Epstein describes it. You get a taste of it in the trailer, but we asked Oscilloscope to edit together two minutes of nothing but Franco reading the poem. Check it out after the jump — along with our interview with Epstein and Friedman, who explain how they recreated the 1955 reading that debuted Ginsberg’s epochal classic.
“The Six Gallery reading in 1955 was a kind of legendary event, the moment when Allen introduced ‘Howl’ to the world, and Ginsberg introduced it as performance,” says Epstein. “In its way, it was the first spoken-word-poetry performance. In literary circles, it’s seen as having launched a movement.”
Franco studied old Studs Terkel audiotapes, the beat film Pull My Daisy, and footage of Ginsberg from his later years, but there are no recordings from that reading in 1955. “Accounts describe it as becoming a very raucous event, with the audience responding and shouting back, but there are some later recordings around that era, and they’re very monotonal, very flat,” says Friedman. “At first, we just wanted to present the words as language and not as performance. But over the years, Ginsberg becomes much more performative, and he’s really feeling it as he reads, so we did take liberties.”
In a way, the reading of the poem compresses the evolution of Ginsberg as a public performer, from tentative newbie to beatific queer-shoulder-to-the-wheel prophet. “We shaped it dramatically and we built a dynamic between what those original recordings were, and then those later, more flamboyant recordings later in his career,” says Epstein, “so that as he starts off in the poem, it’s the first time he’s performing it, somewhat tentatively, and then it grows into that full-throated performance, the crescendo, and then ending with the very transcendent, holy holy holy … “
Accounts of the time describe the reading as wild— a historic party. “We know everyone was drinking,” says Friedman. “Kerouac describes everyone passing along jugs of wine, so while we assume he was sober when they made the recording, we don’t know about that night.”