GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON (Dir. Alex Gibney, 2008)
Every book on my shelf has a different definition of the word “Gonzo”; it’s a style of journalism, it’s an ethic - when I was a kid it was a Muppet. The basic meaning, as best I can gather, is when a commentator, reporter et al. is so intensely immersed in their story that they become part of it.
The alternate meanings can be summed as an ‘in your face’ fact and fiction blurred aesthetic where anything goes. Despite Spanish or Italian roots (again depends on what book you read) the term became part of the popular lexicon in the introduction of an article by Hunter S. Thompson in 1970. Thompson who by then already had a reputation as an gun-toting druggie “Freak Power” anarchist is the subject of this over reverant documentary by Oscar winning dierctor Alex Gibney (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE).
Thompson spent much of the last 40 years in front of a camera when he wasn’t shooting up (in every possible way) so there is much fascinating footage to wade through with news reports about his Hell's Angels meddling, talk show appearances, and amatuer film of his campaign for Mayor of Aspen, Colorado making for a juicy narrative.
Johnny Depp, who played the man in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (which this film uses too many clips from), frames a number of segments with readings from Thompson’s work but since that device drops and he isn’t heard from throughout lengthy chunks of the film he can’t really be considered a narrator though he’s credited as such.
Then there’s the music - with some of the most obvious 60’s songs employed to make easy points this has to go down as one of the least imaginative soundtracks for a period doc ever. I mean, how many times am I gonna have to see “All Along The Watchtower” * cut to war footage? Stones, Joplin, CCR, Lou Reed's “Walk On The Wild Side”; come on! Gibney makes a movie that feels like it was made by somebody whose never seen any 60’s or 70’s docs before.
It’s also so not neccessary to go through the deaths and overused footage of MLK, RFK, and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon to get to the heart of Hunter S. Thompson but there it is and go through it again I guess we’re doomed to do forever.
* To the films credit the version of “Watchtower” used is from Bob Dylan and The Band's live performance on “Before The Flood” (1974) not the incredibly done to death (movie-wise that is) Hendrix version.
Concentrating mostly on Thompson’s early career and glossing over the rest since the 70’s to his death in 2005, GONZO does have its merits. There are interviews with the charming yet still smarmy asshole Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, former Nixon-aid turned Republican Presidential candidate now full-time Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan (who surprisingly has reams of insight), 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee George McGovern, and especially Thompson’s ex-wife Sandy Conklin Thompson (whose name is now Sondi Wright).
There are many great anecdotes with Ralph Steadman's iconic splattered cartoons injecting the proceedings with some much needed rough edges.
For the uninitiated this portrait may be an eye opening overview; to those well versed in the counterculture and the beginnings of the “new media” this may come off as an incomplete too respectful playing of Thompson’s greatest hits with very little new insight gleemed.
In the end it’s just more than a bit disapointing that a film about the Gonzo mind-set and output of one of the most notorious and unruly writers of the last half century could be such a standard straight forward bio-doc; in other words so non-Gonzo.