DVD Review: The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg

New Yorker
Movie •••• Picture ••½ Sound ••½ Extras ••••½

This fascinating, moving, and surprisingly funny DVD could be overwhelming for the casual Allen Ginsberg reader, but fans and scholars will be enthralled by Jerry Aronson's movie and its monumental collection of extras.

Using footage shot over 25 years and divided up into each decade of the poet's life, the film gives its audience plenty to chew on. Aronson doesn't focus exclusively on the poetry; he also deals with Ginsberg's other roles as activist, guru, and preeminent spokesman for the Beat Generation. So it's unsurprising that the task needed not only the 84 minutes of the feature (with footage that wasn't included in the version screened on PBS) but also a full 6 hours of extras. In the end, looking at Ginsberg, it's hard to believe that one man could cram so much experience and art into a single life.

There's so much on this two-disc set that I can only list some highlights, such as Ginsberg's own photographs and home movies, extended clips of him reading his poetry, Ginsberg and Bob Dylan at Jack Kerouac's grave, and the poet's star-studded memorial service in New York City. You also get salient interviews with relatives, friends, and an incredible collection of celebrities who either knew Ginsberg personally or were greatly influenced by his life and work, including William S. Burroughs, Johnny Depp, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Joan Baez, Paul McCartney, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Andy Warhol.

As you might imagine, the movie is a mixed bag in picture and sound quality. Those looking to show off the power and glory of their home theater system should probably look elsewhere. Shot in color and black-and-white, some of the archival footage is a little beat up (no pun intended), but it all looks okay. In fact, a movie like this feels right with a little grit under its fingernails.

Luckily, the spoken words, songs, and chants are always intelligible, and the mono soundtrack doesn't take away from their impact. If anything, it helps you to focus on the beauty and importance of Ginsberg's art. [NR] English, Dolby Digital 2-channel mono; full frame (1.33:1); two dual-layer discs.

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