Maria Beatty’s 1989 non-fiction feature, which is only now receiving a DVD release, brings together the surviving (at the time) members of the Beat generation of poets – Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima – along with a number of poets and performers who gained inspiration from those 1950s-era iconoclasts – including Jim Carroll, Marianne Faithfull, Lydia Lunch, and a surprisingly boyish Henry Rollins.
The result, however, is anything but poetic. It’s basically a slice-and-dice mix of talking head commentary on subjects that have already been addressed at great length: the importance of Ginsberg’s 1956 landmark poem “Howl,” the liberating lyricism of the Beat writer, the challenges of creating poetry, the greater challenges of getting contemporary audiences to acknowledge poetry, etc.
There’s relatively little in the way of genuine poetry in this film, unless you count John Giorno’s painfully hammy (and mercifully brief) spoken word performances. “Gang of Souls: A Generation of Beat Poets” literally goes around in circles, with each of the guest writers getting anywhere from five seconds to two minutes to spout their thoughts and quips before the camera cuts to another poet for equally time-sensitive input. A few writers, particularly the punk-rambunctious Lydia Lunch, use their snippets of screen time with amusingly self-indulgent gusto.
But most, especially Burroughs and Ginsberg, seem politely but conspicuously bored by the endeavor. Honestly, you cannot blame them.