Re-released in 2004 with previously unseen footage to commemorate its tenth anniversary, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ALLEN GINSBERG is a traditional but effective documentary about the famous, decidedly un-traditional poet-activist. Director Jerry Aronson makes impressive use of interviews and rare footage to sketch the personal and professional highlights of Ginsberg's life.
The film follows the poet from childhood to the present day. As a shy young boy growing up in a New Jersey suburb, Ginsberg is haunted by his mother's mental illness, which keeps her in an institution for many years. As a young man, he moves to New York, where, as a student, he meets legendary
literary figures like Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs. Still photographs from the period show these Beat Generation authors traveling "on the road" around the United States. During this time, Ginsberg also comes to terms with his homosexuality. Ginsberg's first literary success
comes in 1956 with the publication of the controversial free-form poem, "Howl." He pays tribute to his mother (who had died in the early 1950s) with another poem, "Kaddish." Ginsberg reads portions from both works.
Ginsberg's life becomes more turbulent in the 1960s and 1970s. He testifies before the US Congress, defending the "recreational" use of LSD, in 1965. Protesting the Vietnam War, he leads a Buddhist chant during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. And he demonstrates against nuclear power in
Rocky Flats, Colorado in the early 1970s. By the 1980s and 1990s, Ginsberg is more settled, and spends his time writing, lecturing, and speaking out on issues of the day.
In its relatively brief running time, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ALLEN GINSBERG neatly captures its subject's many guises over the years--as poet, gay role model, political activist, Jewish celebrity, and intellectual show-off. Indeed, the film is often reminiscent of Woody Allen's parody of the
documentary genre, ZELIG (1984), as colleagues, friends and family members attempt to characterize the extroverted but elusive man (the "talking heads" here include Joan Baez, Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, and Norman Mailer). Still, throughout the chronologically-structured piece, Ginsberg's
warmth and sincerity transcend his chameleon nature. In addition, the film makes an admirable attempt to do justice to the writer's work: the author is allowed to read generous portions of his poems, including a virtually complete rendition of the haunting "Kaddish."
In the wake of flashy, superficial bios like 1993's MANUFACTURING CONSENT, Aronson's film is a refreshingly straightforward, conventional approach to the documentary form. His laudatory account of Allen Ginsberg, both as man and artist, is entirely persuasive--not only do his poems sound better
than ever; it also becomes clear that he's made a positive impact on the lives of people who have never even heard of him. By illuminating the transitory but resonant nature of his life and work, THE LIFE AND TIME OF ALLEN GINSBERG presents a thoughtful, overdue appreciation.(Adult situations,profanity.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: Re-released in 2004 with previously unseen footage to commemorate its tenth anniversary, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ALLEN GINSBERG is a traditional but effective documentary about the famous, decidedly un-traditional poet-activist. Director Jerry Aronson makes… (more)