Movie Reviews Index

The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg (2005)

Rating: 4 Stars

D: Jerry Aronson. Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, William Burroughs, Johnny Depp, Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Hunter S. Thompson. 84 mins. (New Yorker Video) 7/07

Beat poet, fag, loving son, wounded soul, granddaddy to hippies and Gap ads—chasing fame, following gurus, howling, om—ing and loving—it seemed Allen Ginsberg was on the road forever. Gone in an instant. Aronson's documentary brings Irwin Allen Ginsberg, son of a crazy mother and New Jersey schoolteacher/poet, to life—and what a painful life. This is the quintessential backstory peek at Ginsberg's inner life in his own words and those of his literary friends and critics, father, brother and fellow luminaries. If you can't get enough of Ginsberg—I'm one who can't—then this film is for you: a revealing, warts—and—all but affectionate portrait of a self—conscious striver who grew more tender, occasionally unbearably so, with age. We see the young poet in home movies, the journeyman wannabe chasing after Burroughs and the big literary guns of his day, then aging and old, poking amazed fun at himself. At the right place at the right time, Ginsberg knew he and his pals (Neal Cassady, Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Burroughs all put in appearances, along with Norman Mailer, LeRoi Jones, Dick Cavett, William Buckley, Michael McClure, among many others) were making history. Self—abashed fame—seeking isn't what comes to mind when one thinks of Ginsberg's poetry, but that's what Ginsberg was about. In a memorable scene, Ginsberg probes a self—absorbed, detached Burroughs to recall their initial meeting. "Did you think I was good—looking?" asks a very middle—aged Ginsberg, suddenly transformed again into the eager, self—doubting neophyte. Ginsberg talked; fittingly, this hybrid homage memoir is chockfull of insights, gossip, self—reflection and wonder. While Ginsberg has a place in cultural history, the poetry is why we care. Despite the crazy excesses and shenanigans, the poetry radiates rather than declines. Is Ginsberg really that great? Today, West Point cadets read him on the page; see this film if for no other reason than to watch Ginsberg perform live. Enjoy the rest of the film to hear Ginsberg dissect himself, his era (five decades of notoriety) and his friends. Observers of the scene will note the paucity of Ginsberg's East Village digs and recall the ambient poverty. Of cinematic interest: jaw—dropping footage of 1940s Times Square. New Yorker's deluxe double—disc set contains over six hours of extras, much of them well worth delving into, from bonus interviews to rare footage (e.g., Ginsberg and Cassady at Frisco's famed City Lights Bookstore) to photo galleries to a making—of featurette and much more.

~ Nancy Naglin