Monday, March 16, 2009

Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson

Having gone out to bat against corporate evil and political evil in, respectively, ‘Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room’ and ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’, documentarist Alex Gibney’s latest is a change of direction – a celebration of someone who was on the side of the angels … if, that is, your definition of the side of the angels is elastic enough to admit a heavy-drinking dope fiend with a predilection for political agitation and gun ownership.

‘Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson’ is about … well, the clue’s in the title. Hunter S Thompson was the enfant terrible of American journalism – and the patron saint of Gonzo journalism. He didn’t coin the term, but he certainly invented the concept. Gonzo is a style of reporting where the reporter is at the centre of the story, their experiences reported subjectively, in the first person and informed by personal opinion, instead of objectively and in the third person.

Thompson made an early impact with a non-fiction book on the Hell’s Angels, research for which entailed ingratiating himself into a local chapter and immersing himself in their lifestyle, but it was his article “The Kentucky Derby is Depraved and Decadent” – with illustrations by the incomparable Ralph Steadman – that truly defined his literary style.

It opened the door for his key works, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ and ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail’, the former a thinly fictionalised account of Thompson’s hallucinogenic attempt to find the American dream (he finds fear and loathing instead), the latter an account of the 1972 election campaign – one of the most coruscating and jaw-droppingly brilliant pieces of political writing in print.

Then there was the little matter of Thompson’s own electoral campaign, when he stood for Sheriff of his home town of Aspen, Colorado. He shaved his head just so he could refer to his opponent, who sported a sharp military buzz-cut, as “a long-hair”, and went after what he called the “freak power” vote, ie. appealing to the sensibilities of students, hippies, dopers and basically anyone from whom the prevailing white middle-class Aspen citizenry would run in fear. The surprise is not that he lost, but that he lost by such a small margin.

Of course, there was a price to be paid. You don’t bait the establishment for most of your career without becoming a legend – and it’s awfully hard to remain a legend unless you die young. Thompson was defined by his Gonzo image, and the line between the man and his public persona quickly blurred. There were those who thought he’d done his best work by the ’70s and what remained was a cliché of himself.

I’ve probably not read enough of Thompson’s work to call it. What I will say, on the basis of Gibney’s documentary is that he was a complete one-off: by turns a man of great integrity and a raving loon, a liberal and gun nut, penetrating insightful and fiercely dedicated to proscribed substances, a man of the people and a collector of celebrity friends.

It was one of the most iconoclastic of these friends, Johnny Depp, who paid for Thompson’s typically flamboyant funeral, his ashes fired from a 150ft tube amidst a blaze of fireworks.

Depp also contributes to the documentary, giving wonderfully resonant readings from Thompson’s work. Footage of the good doctor is plentiful, friends and family are forthcoming, colleagues are candid and the Hell's Angels (in the form of Ralph “Sonny” Barger) are hellishly antagonistic. There are anecdotes, particularly from Ralph Steadman and Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner, that are screamingly funny. A sense of the absurd lingers over the entire film.

And the soundtrack - featuring just about the best of everything from the ’60s and ’70s - is freakin’ awesome.

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