Judge Erich Asperschlager smashes beer bottles over his head all the time, but you don't hear him bragging about it.
"All I want is beer and damage—personal damage."
Punk broke onto the musical scene in the late 1970s as a reaction against arena rock, disco, and politics. Where it began is a bone of contention among fans and music historians. Did it start with the Sex Pistols in England? The Ramones in New York? Whoever lit the match, once the movement exploded, there was no forcing the "f*** you" genie back in its bottle. Bands popped up wherever disenfranchised youth could beg, borrow, or steal instruments—no musical experience required.
In Los Angeles, two high school friends decided being expelled was as good a reason as any to start a band of their own. They christened themselves Darby Crash and Pat Smears, and named their band The Germs. After juggling a number of band mates (including, for a brief time, Belinda Carlisle, who later joined The Go-Go's), they settled on the four person lineup that would go on to start the L.A. punk scene and get themselves banned from just about every venue they played—Smears on guitar, Lorna Doom on bass, Don Bolles on drums, and Crash, who wrote the lyrics and sang. Their rise to infamy lasted less than four years—ending with Crash's suicide the day before John Lennon was shot—but their influence can be seen even today.
Like many biopics, writer/director Rodger Grossman's What We Do Is Secret is more interesting if you're already familiar with its subject. Grossman presents The Germs as loud, angry, and brutal, with a frontman who's as much of a poet as the L.A. rock legend he hates—Jim Morrison. Without a pre-existing admiration for Crash and his music, however, the film feels like every other story of rock-and-roll excess. It certainly hits the same plot points: troubled childhood, friends with a dream, a failed first show, meteoric fame, drugs, sex, abuse, triumph, and death. Of course, most of what happens on screen happened in real life. Still, how would you know that if you weren't already a Germs fan?
I'm sure Grossman wanted Secret to introduce The Germs to a brand-new audience—heck, I'd never heard of them before—but the movie is really a love letter to fans. The best scenes are the performances, which are as close as anyone's going to get to seeing the real Crash on stage (well, that's not entirely true…but more on that later).
TV hunk Shane West (ER) plays Darby Crash with arresting intensity. Though there are times when the veneer starts to crack—especially when he's offstage—he is unflinching in his portrayal of self-destruction. On stage, West is a tiger, tensed and ready to strike at anything that moves. He taunts the audience, destroys equipment, and even slices his bare chest with broken glass. I suppose that energy is why West was asked to replace the long-dead Crash for The Germs' recent reunion gigs. I'm not going to comment here on a punk band replacing their lead singer with an actor, but if this film was West's audition, I'd say he passed.
The only problem with West's performance is how obvious his lip-synching is. Since he can apparently sing (or growl, or scream, or whatever), I'm going to chalk it up to ADR problems. That would explain why everyone else sounds like their lines were looped in after the fact. What people say matches their lips, but the volume is off. And that's not the only thing about this film that feels off. Weak acting and dialogue undermine a lot of What We Do Is Secret gets right about The Germs and the late-'70s punk scene.
Rick Gonzalez and Bijou Phillips—as Smears and Doom, respectively—are solid from beginning to end, though, ironically, they rock more offstage than on. Fresh from his first season on The CW's Reaper, Gonzalez certainly looks like the real Smears (who acted as executive music producer for the film), and he's got the chops to hold his own against West, but he's too sweet to sell being part of the most-feared band in L.A. Phillips (Hostel: Part II) comes across as more dangerous, and looks great as rail-thin punk bitch Doom, but even she seems too…well…relaxed on stage. I expect both actors to hit it big in years to come, but I doubt this film is the one that will launch them into stardom. As for the rest of the cast, it's a mixed bag, with performances ranging from good (Veronica Mars-alum Tina Majorino) to terrible.
Extras on the disc are limited to an audio commentary by Grossman and West, and for you punk-lovin' iPod owners, a digital copy of the film.
What We Do Is Secret is an impressive debut for Rodger Grossman, who captures some of what it was like during punk's heyday. The 5.1 surround mix adds punch to the club scenes and The Germs' music in general. Though the film looks somewhat grainy in places, it combines with stylish design to create a near-authentic period feel. Unfortunately, it's not authentic enough. What We Do Is Secret has energy, but it also has sound problems, uncomfortable dialogue, and a general sense that what we're seeing is a dramatic re-enactment, not actual events. Germs and general punk fans should see this film, but another downer tale of ego-driven rock 'n' roll suicide is going to be a tough sell to just about everyone else. On the other hand, maybe this film is just messy enough to be punk after all.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Peace Arch Entertainment
• Filmmaker and Actor Commentary Featuring Rodger Grossman and Shane West
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