Judge Gordon Sullivan says that Muppet wasn't the only great Gonzo.
"It never got weird enough for me."
If I am ever called upon to justify the existence of humanity, with all its wars, hatred, and folly, there are few things to which I can point and say without reservation, "That is beautiful. That is good. That makes it all worthwhile." One of the things I would point to is the work of Hunter Stockton Thompson. For all his buffoonery, for all his mistakes, his words crackled like lightning, and his integrity was, as far as I'm aware, unmatched in twentieth century letters. Because he chose to be ultra-subjective in his writing, he could relentlessly pursue the truth in a way that no "objective" journalist could match. Decades after his antics, his predictions and analysis still resonate with the best the '60s had to offer. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson attempts to tell the story of this figure, what could have been a king-hell bastard of a film gets bogged down by hero worship and poor directorial choices.
Facts of the Case
Gonzo: The Life and Times of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is the story of the famed outlaw journalist, author of numerous best-selling books including the absolute classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
"He was a bastard. He was bitter. A bad drunk, a worse tipper. To make his life into a love song would be the worst kind of lie."
Dan McCarthy (in his song "The Wood Will be a Wake Tonight") wasn't talking about Hunter S. Thompson, but the words resonate with the good Doctor's story. Although Thompson may have been a fine drunk, and a good tipper, turning his life into a love song, as Gonzo does, is the worst kind of lie. No doubt, Hunter S. Thompson was one of the genius writers of the latter half of the twentieth century. He crafted prose that captured an effortless voice, decrying hypocrisy and the death of the American dream. I wouldn't, for even a moment, consider taking those accomplishments away. But there was another side to the good Dr. Thompson. Overindulgence in anything, be it drugs or a search for the truth, leaves casualties in its wake. For all his charm and magnetism, Thompson left quite a few wrecks on the side of the highway to Truth.
You won't see those wrecks in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Even at this late date, the man who could laud his enemy Nixon for his football knowledge is still being whitewashed. There are a few moments at the start of the film that point out that Thompson had a dark side, but those moments seem to absolve the rest of the film from the responsibility to dig past the shiny surface of Thompson's public profile. We hear very little about his childhood, and the film starts to pick up around the time of Hell's Angels, covering the major works, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. Individuals like Ralph Steadman, Jann Wenner, and Thompson's first wife Sandy and his son Juan, are interviewed. In between these clips are readings by Johnny Depp from Hunter's work. There's the occasional bit of vintage footage as well, often showing Thompson at home.
I don't think that any film of Hunter S. Thompson's life has to be an unmitigated bummer, only covering Thompson's excesses. But, considering how much of his life is documented in his work, a film that only covers the "good" stuff is completely redundant. To put it another way, I didn't learn anything from watching Gonzo that I didn't already know from reading Thompson's books (especially his collected letters). For this uncritical travesty to come from Alex Gibeny, the man who brought us Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, seems especially unforgivable.
I strongly dislike Gonzo for its refusal to dig past the fairytale mythology of Hunter S. Thompson, but I simply can't forgive the film for its aesthetic lapses. Thompson was a largely autobiographical writer whose prose was meticulously crafted to give the appearance of spontaneity. If one has the desire to tell Hunter's story, then his work is the place to go. There are moments in Gonzo where Johnny Depp reads from Hunter's work, but it is often paired with ridiculous footage that does nothing but distract from the power of the words on the page. The deployment of these reenactments is heavy handed and of little visual value. While Errol Morris uses slow-motion reenactments to heighten tension, the reenactments in Gonzo are instead pathetic. When Johnny Depp reads from Hunter's description of a werewolf stalking the Watergate Hotel, his reading is accompanied by footage of a man in what looks to be a bunny suit (minus the ears) running around Washington. It's no match for Thompson's words, and looks rather pathetic.
Finally, I want to point out the crass commercialism of (parts of) this release. Amidst the other fine extras there are advertisements for a CD release compiling some of Hunter's own field recordings, as well as the soundtrack for the film. This is not terribly unusual, but considering how many cash-in releases have occurred since Hunter's suicide, these advertisements just feel a little excessive.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the failures of this documentary, the DVD is not a total loss. The picture and sound capture the film well, with clear video and a well-balanced soundtrack. Even the vintage footage, much of it from consumer-grade sources, looks pretty good. The film is not shy about using some very good music on the soundtrack, and those moments boom appropriately.
If you can ignore the advertisements, the extras have a lot to offer. The highlights are the extended moments that didn't make it into the film. There are "deleted scenes," which include extended footage of Hunter on 8mm film, as well as some interview material. In the "extended scenes," we get extra interview moments with the participants in the film. Without Gibney's editorializing, these standalone interviews are compelling remembrances of Hunter. Gibney also provides a commentary on the film that contains more of his thoughts on Hunter and the making of the film. I didn't find his insights particularly interesting, but some of the stories he tells are compelling. There are also photo galleries and some drawings by Ralph Steadman, which are always welcome. The aforementioned excerpts from the Gonzo Tapes are worth listening to, if only to hear how Hunter worked. A DVD on Hunter S. Thompson wouldn't be complete without some discussion of his guns, and there's a text extra that lists his weapons. Finally, singer-songwriter Tift Merrit does a live performance of a song she wrote, called "Wayward and Weary," after seeing Gonzo for the first time.
If you only think of Hunter S. Thompson as the clown prince of acid heads, then this is the documentary for you. If, on the other hand, you see the depth and darkness that HST revealed about himself and our culture, then avoid Gonzo completely. Diehard fans of either stripe will be well-served by this DVD edition of Gonzo because of the interview footage and other extras on the disc.
Gonzo is guilty of being a facile, hero-worshipping whitewash of a great American. Hunter deserves better.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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