Biographies are tricky. If you're going to sit down for two hours and watch a non-fiction film about one person, that means you're already interested in said person--which also means you probably know some stuff about them. Ideally, documentaries offer new viewpoints on their subjects while avoiding the pratfalls of talking down to knowledgeable audiences or boring the shit out of uninitiated viewers.
With mixed results, Jerry Aronson's The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg straddles the line of how much to tell and how much to presume the audience knows. By assuming certain facts (that Ginsberg is a fucking amazing poet, that he was an integral member of the Beats, that you know who the Beats are), Life and Times fills the rest of its time with insights from Ginsberg, his family, and rare footage.
That footage is the reason to see this film. There are testi-monials from the crazy-as-shit Timothy Leary; wince-inducing clips as Ginsberg is interviewed by a smug, condescending William F. Buckley; weird snippets documenting Ginsberg's connections to Bob Dylan and Abbie Hoffman. For those of us who weren't around in the '50s and '60s, Aronson's film is the only thing I've seen that so freely offers up those peculiar nuggets of footage.
Aronson's technique fails at a few key points, though--Ginsberg's relationship with Peter Orlovsky is rarely delved into, too-brief mentions of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac will leave City Lights fanatics hungry, and Aronson's focus on Ginsberg's Froot Loops mother detracts from both Ginsberg's last decades and Ginsberg's poet father, Louis.
But when exceptional moments do come up--like protest footage of an incensed Ginsberg in poetry-spewing glory, or veiled quips from Ginsberg about his relationship between writing and emotion--they make Life and Times well worthwhile. If you know and love Ginsberg already, there's enough here to keep you interested. If you don't, this isn't the best introduction--but after scanning a collection or two of Ginsberg's epochal, euphoric poems, Life and Times should serve as an excellent afterward.