The time is 1957, and the place is San Francisco. The topic is the poem Howl, now a standard symbol of the Beat Generation, to and for which its outspokenness spoke boldly and directly; but back then it caused a tumultuous controversy.
The film celebrates Alan Ginsberg’s poem. In a non-linear way, it reconstructs the background of the young Alan Ginsberg (played by James Franco) – including his reluctance to publish his works because he didn’t want his father to learn he was gay – and it follows the creative process which they fostered. The 1956 publication of Howl generated a virulent societal reaction, and this led to the obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the bookstore owner who had first dared to publish the poem (its sometimes-ludicrous testimony is word-for-word from transcripts of the trial).
At the end of the trial, all charges were dismissed, and the judge’s verdict redefined the standard of what constitutes obscenity, i.e., material not then protected by the First Amendment. The judge’s phrase “redeeming social importance” temporarily led to legal decisions that held that only material “utterly without redeeming social value” could be prohibited, and an unabated flood of sexually-oriented publications and pornography began. The film is an exemplary exploration of a West Coast literary revolution that gave birth to the counterculture Beat Generation.