Almost any fan of Hunter S. Thompson would have to approach a Thompson bio-doc with some trepidation. Given his well-deserved reputation as a trailblazing journalist and prose stylist—and his equally well-deserved renown as an outsized personality/crank, ripped to the tits on a panoply of narcotics and heavily armed—it’s easy to imagine a filmmaker seeking the proper balance of stories to tell and getting it wrong. Fortunately, Thompson drew Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side).
The establishing reels of Gonzo look headed toward what might be the expected default mode of entertaining hagiography, with Johnny Depp reading excerpts of Thompson’s work in reverent tones, talking heads such as Jann Wenner and Pat Buchanan talking him up, and Gibney animating and manipulating any archival anything that isn’t nailed down. But the documentary soon digs deep into Thompson’s finest hours: the groundbreaking immersion journalism that resulted in 1966’s Hell’s Angels; his crazy-like-a-fox 1970 run for sheriff of Aspen, Colo.; his article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” the debut of the half-reported, half-concocted first-person “gonzo” style and his first collaboration with illustrator/alter ego Ralph Steadman; and the madness and melancholy of the epochal ’60s elegy Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In an especially valuable section, Gibney also traces Thompson’s full-court-press coverage of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign against Thompson nemesis Richard Nixon with its mix of unabashed hopes for McGovern, unflinching coverage of the campaign’s failures, and deep disappointment when Nixon won in a landslide. In so doing, the director puts the cherry on not only an incisive view of what made Thompson’s work new, unique, and possibly still unmatched, but also of the times that fueled its idealism and its bile.
Gonzo is then likewise unflinching in illustrating how Thompson’s growing fame and rock-star shenanigans hobbled his writing and turned his life into a sideshow until he ended it with a bullet to the head in 2005. There are surely Thompson fans who will be disappointed that Gibney spends little time on his subject’s early days, which zip by, and even more who will long, if only secretly, for more tales of chemical and ballistic excess from his waning years. But while never lacking for pep or dazzle, Gonzo retains a thoughtful poise that its subject rarely managed in life and in so doing makes an excellent case for what should be remembered about Thompson and why.
What We Do Is Secret, on the other hand, is almost a no-win proposition from the count-off. The thousands of aging punks and music nerds who actually care about Los Angeles punk pioneers the Germs either have personal memories of the band’s brief careen and swift implosion with the suicide of singer Darby Crash in 1980, or they’ve had legends of same passed down like holy wisdom for a generation now. Those who don’t give a damn about brilliantly unhinged punk-rock bands and their tortured frontmen are unlikely to be interested, much less moved by such a tale. Neither faction is likely to be much pleased by director/co-writer Rodger Grossman’s fictionalized account.
Not that it isn’t a good story. Born-to-lose Paul Beahm (Shane West) grabs a couple of fellow dead-end kids and forms a band. Though Paul, soon to be redubbed Darby Crash, can’t sing and neither the newly styled Pat Smear (Rick Gonzalez) or Lorna Doom (Bijou Phillips) can play their instruments, they press on, because what else have they got to do? They’re so broke that Smear has to borrow a guitar every time he plays, and they’re so bad that their first single, the garage-recorded “Forming,” features the sound of Crash walking out in disgust as the tape rolls. With drummer Don Bolles (Noah Segan) on board, however, the Germs’ chaotic assault soon infects the L.A. club scene, though the very unpredictability that makes Crash and the band eyeball magnets makes it almost impossible for them to play shows or make anything of their growing notoriety. Crash, meanwhile, struggles with his hidden homosexuality, with drugs, and with what fame means and what it doesn’t.
Shane West flings himself into Darby Crash, so much so that the surviving Germs have actually recruited West to sing on periodic reunion tours, but his Crash seems too articulate, too toned, too shrewd to pass for the chubby-faced, addled misfit familiar to fans of The Decline of Western Civilization. No matter how compelling the script, no matter how adroitly Grossman skirts a baseline low-budget VH1 bio-doc vibe, What We Do Is Secret comes off like an attempt at the true story of the wrong person. And other than morbidly curious diehards, secret is what it is likely to remain.