122437 howl 422x218 James Franco Defended by Mad Man Jon HammIn “Howl,” the Sundance opening night feature this year, James Franco’s Allen Ginsberg is defended in court by Jon Hamm of “Mad Men.”

Each of the actors is superb, as is the rest of the cast including Bob Balaban, David Straithairn, Treat Williams, Mary Louise Parker, Jon Prescott, and Alessandro Nivola.

Directors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein started out making a documentary. But eventually the story of poet Ginsberg’s publication of the epic and great 1955 poem “Howl” took on a life of its own. All the characters of the time were fleshed out, and the story ‘ of Ginsberg being tried for obscenity ‘ was developed from court transcripts.

The result is a small but gem-like film that should have a nice life in art houses before being showcased on HBO or the like. For one thing, Franco could not be better. He is spot on brilliant as Ginsberg. Franco’s so good in fact that after listening to him for 90 minutes, you’re surprised it’s not him singing at the end of the film but Ginsberg himself. It’s a performance that will come back in awards season next fall.

Epstein and Friedman are doc makers, so “Howl” unfortunately never rises to the level of say, Bennett Miller’s “Capote.” It’s a single minded exploration, and that’s fine. They’ve cast it so well that the minor characters around Ginsberg stand out. Hamm is very Gregory Peck defending Ginsberg. He’s just minutes away from breaking out of “Man Men” as a movie star. Bob Balaban is quietly sensational as the judge who presided over the trial.

Meantime, Franco has a lot on his plate. He has a short film here in competition, and is hoping to take a couple of shorts to Cannes. In May he will film the final episode of his “General Hospital” stint at Jeffrey Deitch’s art gallery in New York before it shuts down. He’s also somehow still going to graduate school. There’s nothing like keeping busy!

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