James Franco brings ‘Howl’ to life, aurally


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This weekend, ‘Howl’ opens in New York and San Francisco. It’s the story of Allen Ginsberg, his iconic beat poem and the legal battle that followed its publication. The movie, written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 1.

KPCC’s Alex Cohen talked to filmmakers Epstein and Friedman about casting James Franco as Ginsberg and their work at bringing the writer to life on screen. ‘He had a personal connection to the beats,’ Epstein said.


In a nice use of radio, the piece includes Franco reading ‘Howl’ as Ginsberg. ‘I imagined it that James Franco probably spent a lot of time in the studio just focusing on the sound, the voice, creating this poem,’ Cohen said. ‘Bringing it to life.’

‘He did indeed do all of that,’ Epstein said.’But in fact that was the last layer of the work we did together.’

How much does Franco sound like Ginsberg? The earliest recordings of Ginsberg reading ‘Howl’ are from 1956, the year the poem was published. In this MP3, from the Ginsberg archive at the University of Pennsylvania, he reads all three parts.

At the time it was published, the poem’s sexual content was expected to be controversial -- when Lawrence Ferlinghetti published it, the ACLU assured him it would defend him on 1st Amendment grounds, and he was arrested and tried in 1957.

Later, Ginsberg would become a kind of spokesperson -- for the beats, for open homosexuality, for alternative religious practices, for drugs -- but in the earliest recordings, he was a poet with only the first inklings of what his role might mean.

It’s that pre-headline Ginsberg that you can hear in the early MP3, and it sounds like, from Franco’s reading, that it is that Ginsberg that the actor is evoking. He’s pretty close. At the Poetry Foundation, D.A. Powell asked the filmmakers, ‘Is Franco lip-synching Ginsberg?’ No, they replied, but they find it ‘wonderful’ that people think he is.


-- Carolyn Kellogg