Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson: A documentary thrill ride into the mind of a mad genius

posted 3/24/09 on 2009: A Blog Odyssey

It’s spring break once again and time to catch up on DVD releases you’ve missed since school started in August and forgot to rent during winter break. What better way to kick off a break than with a documentary about the much-admired and imitated but never duplicated Hunter S. Thompson? Released in November of last year, this is a DVD worth seeing for all aspiring journalists, writers of creative nonfiction, and admirers of artistic innovators who lived (and died, in Thompson’s case) on the edge.


THE FILM

From Alex Gibney, the director of 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, comes a Johnny Depp-narrated feature on Thompson’s long, storied writing career. Gibney enlists interviewees such as Thompson’s first and second wives, his son Juan, his friend and expressionistic book illustrator Ralph Steadman, Rolling Stone editor and co-founder Jann Wenner, the president of Hell’s Angels, Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanon, George McGovern, biographer Douglas Brinkley, and Jimmy Buffet to trace his history from being a young photojournalist out of Kentucky, to his Hell’s Angels exposé, to his explosion of fame in 1971 with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to his ensuing books following presidential candidates on the campaign trail, to his gradual decline and suicide.

The film touches on the biographical basics most Thompson fans would already know: he did a lot of drugs, his writing teeters on the edge of nonfiction and fiction, he sided with the political left, he lamented the death of 1960s progressive movements, he liked shooting things, etc. But did you know he admired The Great Gatsby so much that he copied it out verbatim just to understand F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterful prose style? Or that he once campaigned to become sheriff of Aspen, Colorado? Or that before his suicide in 2005 (no surprise to anyone close to him; he had always planned on ending his own life with a gun) he planned out the erection of a statue with two-thumbed fist on top (his symbol) on his Owl Ranch estate, from which his ashes would be shot by cannon fire? Gonzo is full of fascinating kernels of information like these.

Through seeing footage of Thompson and his friends’ recollections of him, we come to understand him as a unique kind of patriot with an original vision of what counted as permissible journalism. The tragedies in his life are saddening, but his trippy, balls-to-the-wall approach to news reporting is truly liberating — a milestone in American creative writing.


SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Director commentary.
  • Promotional info about the film’s accompanying book, box set of Thompson’s personal tapes, and soundtrack (which features Lou Reed, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, James Brown, Warren Zevon, Brewer & Shipley, and a song by Thompson and Steadman — not too shabby!).
  • A collection of Steadman’s illustrations of Thompson, many of which viewers may recognize from the Fear and Loathing book.
  • Photo galleries, including many self-portraits and pictures taken during his interviews with Hell’s Angels and his trips to South America and the Big Sur. It also collects photocopies of his letters, journals, certificates, and licenses.
  • Sound excerpts from the Gonzo Tapes — recordings taken in Las Vegas from which Thompson pieced together Fear and Loathing. Basically it’s just Thompson (”Raoul Duke” in the book) and his lawyer, Oscar Acosta (”Dr. Gonzo”), rambling about finances, telegrams, booze, drugs, and women.
  • Deleted scenes, including home movie footage of Thompson playing football outside his Colorado ranch (in his usual short shorts, despite there being snow on the ground); a candid interview concerning Watergate and the Nixon administration; and a bizarre segment with Steadman in drag — his lips and the surrounding area smothered in lipstick, his head covered in a curly, white wig — in which he explains how his own artistry helped Thompson understand himself and fostered his journalistic creativity.
  • A ton of extended interviews with his family, editors, friends, and politicians. My favorites are the ones that shed some light on Thompson’s contradictions: how Thompson loved guns and was a lifelong member of the NRA but utterly detested their Republican affiliation; how he constantly abused drugs and alcohol but liked to smoke with a cigarette holder to filter out a bit of tar; how he ridiculed stumbling drunkards but was notorious for being one himself. Another fun interview was with Tom Wolfe (author of Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)). Wolfe’s recollection of how Thompson honked a deafening marine horn in the middle of a crowded restaurant shows how the man was always a performer — always trying to live up to his reputation as a troublemaker (which haunted him in his later years).
  • A list and description of 18 guns Thompson owned.
  • An uninteresting song by Tift Merritt evidently inspired by seeing Gonzo in theater.

HIGHLIGHTS

Pretty much every clip of Thompson working his chaotic magic is a delight to watch. His distinct brand of iconoclasm and proud freakishness demonstrate the by-products of American politics and culture.

I also found Thompson and Pat Buchanon’s takes on each other to be particularly interesting. At times the two recall bickering with each other to no end — Thompson deriding Buchanon as “a half-crazed Davy Crockett running around the parapets of Nixon’s Alamo.” Yet they were occasional drinking buddies and, underneath it all, respected each other’s authenticity in a superficial age.


LOWLIGHTS

I could do without the gazillion clips from Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) during the segment about that book. Johnny Depp does a fine job narrating in this film, but I have never been a fan of his overacted portrayal of Thompson. His movements and gestures are too strong a caricature and remind you that it’s Johnny Depp, not the Gonzo journalist himself.

Gonzo also lingers too long on the McGovern campaign. For a few minutes, it seems as if the film may veer off into becoming a documentary about the 1972 election. We learn so much about 1960s and 1970s Thompson — how he followed the Kennedys, George McGovern, and Jimmy Carter — but then the story skips much of the 80s and 90s before making a pit stop in this decade to see some of his late-in-life Owl Ranch antics.


VERDICT


Plug a smoke in your cigarette holder, open up a bottle of Wild Turkey, and give this doc a spin. The interviewees’ varying perspectives on Thompson — some see him as a visionary, some as a loon, some as a hilarious prankster — paint a complex picture of the troubled writer. Love him or hate him, you have to admit his life story is pretty damn interesting. And another plus: the plethora of special features actually add something to the overall presentation of the DVD, which can’t be said of most recently released movies.

STATS

  • Nominated for Best Documentary at Sundance and Best Documentary Screenplay by the Writers Guild of America
  • Rated 86% on RottenTomatoes
  • Running time: 120 minutes
  • Rated R

COMING SOON TO A BLOG NEAR YOU

    My thoughts on Blockbuster Total Access’s rental policy change.

    Shortly thereafter, I will review Synecoche, New York, a bizarre Philip Seymour Hoffman film I can barely spell but have been wanting to see for months.