Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

Since I wasn't able to find a theater near here showing it when it had its run, I only just now got around to seeing Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the post-humus documentary on the man whose writing has served as a touchstone and inspiration to my own career and outlook.

The film is, like a lot of documentaries, an amalgam of stock photos and archival video footage, focusing mainly on the events in Thompson's life that shaped his admittedly bent approach to journalism. The directors also staged a few dramatic recreations to highlight moments of the film -- the opening credits roll to a Hunter Thompson stand-in riding a BSA motorcycle at breakneck speed down the California oceanside highway, set to a raucous soundtrack and Johnny Depp's voice, reading Thompson's sequence on "an honest run."

It's a moving picture that does a rather good job of attempting to explain Thompson the man -- as distinct from the "Gonzo" character he created for himself (exploited some years later, and during Thompson's lifetime, by Gary Trudeau's "Uncle Duke" character in "Doonesbury"). It's not altogether flattering -- Thompson's reputation had equal parts of revolutionary writer and legendary substance abuser mixed in, and there were points where the latter outweighed the former.

The interviews come from many of the people who knew him in different aspects of his life and career -- his first wife, Sandy, decries his 2005 suicide, and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner tears up and has to halt the interview when it comes time to discuss his old sometimes-friend and sometimes-enemy's demise. But we also hear from contemporary "New Journalist" Tom Wolfe (whose Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, drew from audio tapes Thompson had made while covering the Hell's Angels for his own first book), and then-Nixon aide Pat Buchanan, who, surprisingly, had many warm (if sometimes alarming) memories of the writer. Former Sen. George McGovern (whose disastrous campaign against the incumbent Nixon Thompson followed and turned into a book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, '72) and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who took Thompson in after his first wife asked for a divorce, also contribute. 

The end of the film features footage from Thompson's funeral at his Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado interspersed with a younger Thompson walking the grounds of the expansive rural property and explaining how he'd like to be sent off -- he wanted his ashes fired out of a gigantic cannon, shaped like his trademark double-thumbed fist, over the place he'd called home since his move to Aspen at the end of the 1960s. This wish he was granted -- Johnny  Depp, who spent three months with the "Good Doctor" prior to playing him in Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, reportedly financed a large portion of  the funeral.

It's a good watch. There could perhaps have been more time spent on the substance of Thompson's work, but perhaps a more personal look at him as a human being is exactly what we were missing in the catalog of Thompson-related memorabilia. As an avid Thompson fan, I have to say I was moved nearly to tears by the end. I felt, once again, remorseful, that there is no more Dr. Thompson to look to for that strange mix of hilarity, rage, and madness that somehow helped at least some of us better understand the crazy world we live in.