The least known of the Beats comes off as the most appealing in Gustave Reininger’s enthralling docu “Corso — the Last Beat.” The helmer, best known for his collaborations with Michael Mann (most notably on “Crime Story”), befriended Gregory Corso in his later years, documenting that final period and helping to expel ghosts from the poet’s haunted past. Once it’s gotten the clumsy period-setting out of the way, the pic comes into its own, tugging at the emotions in genuinely cathartic ways. “Corso” will easily see success on bicoastal art screens and beyond.
In a sign of how successfully Reininger gives life not just to the man but to his poetry, the public jury at Taormina awarded the docu their best film prize. Opening scenes introduce Corso exhorting the Muses at the ancient temple in Delphi, looking very different from the handsome figure seen in early photos. With his thick New York accent and unkempt appearance, he looks and sounds more like a common schnorrer than the man Allen Ginsberg called “a poet’s poet.”
Reininger shifts back in time in an attempt to capture the era leading up to the Beats’ takeover of popular culture, though piling on photos does little to illuminate the subject. Fortunately this hyperbole-prone section segues into scenes of Corso and Ginsberg pointing out old haunts in New York’s Greenwich Village. With Ginsberg’s death in 1997 — seen in deliberately out-of-focus images — Corso became the last of the Beats.
Docu’s long gestation is evident both in this original footage and in Reininger’s subsequent journey with Corso to Europe, where the poet was rejuvenated by sites in France, Italy and Greece he first visited in the 1950s.
Born in New York in 1930, he led a hardscrabble childhood: Convinced by an abusive father that his mother abandoned him, Corso grew up on the streets, thrown into “the Tombs” at age 13 for nabbing a toaster. At 17, he was sentenced to three years in the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility for stealing a suit. The docu enters a new realm with scenes of Corso returning to Clinton and speaking with the inmates about his discovery of classical texts in prison. There’s nothing of the schoolmaster in his manner; he speaks inspirationally, without condescension and with enormous understanding and gratitude.
From here, Reininger’s story gets better and better, as he fills in Corso’s childhood and investigates the real tale of his mother’s supposed abandonment. Even auds aware of the story are bound to be moved by how it develops, and the film captures it with respect and warmth.
Much is left out — there’s no sense of how Corso supported himself, and the film does viewers a disservice by avoiding any mention of his drug use and lifelong methadone addiction.
Ethan Hawke delivers onscreen narration in a relaxed style akin to that of a teacher educating friends. The thesp is an appropriate choice: His propensity for grunge could never have existed without the Beats and, as seen toward the end, he was a visitor at Corso’s deathbed. Sound quality is occasionally fuzzy around the edges, but otherwise, the docu plays fine on the bigscreen.