If I were a cynic (and sometimes I am), I’d say that the surest thing you could say these days about the word rebel is that anyone who uses it to describe themselves definitely isn’t one. But Sundance this year has cast itself as a celebration of rebels. Before each movie, the screen blinks and glows with a screen saver-style light show of tiny electric dots on which the following slogans appear: “This is cinematic rebellion,” “This is the renewed rebellion,” and (my favorite) “This is the recharged fight against the establishment of the expected.” (They should try using that one for Toyota.)

All in all, corny but effective. Especially on opening night, when the light show preceded the premiere of Howl — a deliberate attempt by the programmers to offer up Allen Ginsberg, in his formative mid-’50s prime, as a noble ancestor of the make-what-you-feel spirit of independent film. It worked. Written and directed by the team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet), Howl is just an okay movie, but it’s got a canny, outsider-art infectiousness. It’s less about Ginsberg the man than about the work that made him famous: his bebop, agony-of-the-ecstasy stream-of-consciousness poem “Howl” (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”), a declaration of linguistic and erotic liberation that kicked its way into being when one strait-laced, horn-rimmed, secretly gay nice Jewish boy allowed himself to follow his bliss.

In a piece of casting just offbeat enough that I had doubts about whether it would work, James Franco, in thick black curly hair, plays Ginsberg, and damned if Franco doesn’t nail the poet’s winningly bombastic urban-intellectual glee; he’s like a young rabbi letting himself go in the New York beatnik underground. Howl isn’t a conventional biopic. It’s closer to a staged documentary that intercuts scenes of Franco’s Ginsberg reading “Howl,” for more or less the first time, on a coffeehouse stage; a journalist interviewing him two years later, after the poem and the controversy it provoked made him into a celebrity; and a dramatization of the obscenity trial that exonerated the extreme language of “Howl” by finding it to be a work of redeeming social value. (Jon Hamm plays the attorney who defends City Lights bookstore proprietor Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Hamm is so dynamic he makes courtroom argument sound like poetry.)

There are also colorful, night-bloom animated sequences that illustrate Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl,” and at first these seem a bit much — it’s like watching Taxi Driver turned into a bad peyote trip by the makers of Coraline. Yet they do force you inside the poem. Howl is a real anomaly: a light-fingered, almost academic celebration of the freedom of art. The movie makes you appreciate that Allen Ginsberg was a rebel in the place that counts most: his mind.

* * *

Speaking of 1950s rebels… There has already been one musical biopic, the beautifully made Backbeat (1994), about the early days of John Lennon and the Beatles. Nowhere Boy, however, is about Lennon’s very early days, and it’s a terrific film: insightful and moving, with rock & roll sequences that give you a tingle. It starts in 1955, when Lennon (Aaron Johnson) is just 15 and a slightly bratty Liverpool delinquent living, almost like an orphan, with his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who doesn’t have much to say to him beyond telling him to wear his glasses. Before long, two things will rock his world. First, he learns that his real mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), lives just down the road, and he reconnects with her; she’s smiley and free-spirited and a real flirt, just like John, but she’s also a fragile neurotic waif who was too young and emotionally broken to raise him, which is why he ended up with his prim, scolding aunt. The second thing that happens is that Julia takes him to a movie theater where he sees, for the first time, Elvis Presley, and from that moment on Elvis is who he wants to be.

It’s no easy trick to make the early days of rock seem new again. The power of Nowhere Boy is that, as directed by the British conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood (this is her first feature), from a script by Matt Greenhalgh (Control), it captures how John Lennon’s incredibly sordid and messed-up family life toyed with his soul by never quite letting him know who he was. When he’s drawn, like a moth to a flame, to the joyful bad-boy catharsis of rock & roll, it gives him more than an outlet — it give him an identity. It’s the role he was born to play. Newcomer Aaron Johnson is a revelation. At first, he seems a bit too morose to be John Lennon, but that’s all by design. As the movie goes on, the Lennon personality starts to emerge and develop — the cheekiness that’s a shade away from cruelty, and sometimes falls into it; the short fuse he kept mostly hidden from the public; the sexiness of his delinquent swagger.

Lennon forms a skiffle group, the Quarrymen (the movie does a lovingly exacting job of re-creating certain photographs of Lennon wearing his pompadour and holding his first country guitar), and when he starts to play gigs, the music, in its tossed-off adolescent way, is electrifying. I’m not sure I can think of another rock drama set in the ’50s that so evocatively captures how songs by, say, Gene Vincent were like a musical earthquake. Then comes the moment when Lennon meets a local 15-year-old dandy who loves rock & roll, but doesn’t have a delinquent bone in his body. His name is Paul (Thomas Sangster), and their bond, both personal and musical, is brought to life with a deftly funny, wayback-machine authenticity. You may think you’ve already seen everything there is to see about the Beatles, but by showing you who John Lennon started out as, Nowhere Man makes you know, that much better, who he became.

More from Owen Gleiberman at Sundance 2010:

Sundance 2010 documentaries: Casino Jack and the United States of Money; Smash His Camera; Restrepo

The Company Men: A juicy drama of downsized corporate executives

Sundance 2010: Change you can believe in?

More from EW at Sundance 2010:

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