Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Now Showing at: Esquire Theatre.
Review by: Larry Thomas
How does one go about dissecting the life and work of a man who is a troubled soul, a larger than life personality and a journalistic genius?
Easy…leave it to a qualified documentary filmmaker. Writer-director Alex Gibney’s new film, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, does a fine job of exploring the life and pain of one of the legends of contemporary journalism.
The film is full of home movies of Thompson, as well as segments from many different interviews, giving the viewer an excellent first-person introduction. The narration is by his friend Johnny Depp, who played the writer in the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. On-screen interviews include friends and family of Thompson, as well as notable figures ranging from Sonny Barger, founder of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang to Jimmy Buffet, and politicos as varied as Jimmy Carter and Pat Buchanan.
Coming out the Beatnik culture of the late 1950s, Hunter S. Thompson became a literary superstar in 1965. He managed to embed himself with The Hell’s Angels, and wrote a book telling their story, warts and all. He lived with them, rode with them, whatever it took to get the facts.
His magazine articles for Rolling Stone Magazine and other publications earned him many new fans for his “gonzo” style of journalism, which fractured all the traditional rules of reporting. He ran for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, just to irritate the incumbent sheriff, on one of the most outrageous platforms ever used in the political arena, which Thompson himself outlines in the film.
He was literate, brilliant, funny, and charming. The other side of that coin was an over-the-edge dark side that haunted him, and those who knew and loved him, until his dying day. Who knows what demons drive a man to such excessive use of drugs, booze, sex, and guns? He always had a couple of dozen guns around the house, and liked to shoot them regularly. There would be substance-fueled parties that would last for days. But in the end, he knew exactly how he wanted to exit, and had it planned to the last detail. Not an act of depression or insanity, but an act of being in control, much like when he put words to paper to create some of his noteworthy essays on politics, the death of the American dream, or anything else that might catch his attention or make him steaming mad. If anything, this seemingly out of control man knew exactly what he was doing, and he liked it that way.
The film is peppered with, and punctuated by, some of the great tunes of Hunter S. Thompson’s era. As presented for our observation by Alex Gibney, Oscar nominated for Enron: The Smartest Men in the Room, and an Oscar winner for last years’ Taxi to the Dark Side, we may not feel like we know Hunter Thompson any better, but perhaps we understand him more than we might think.
This is a terrific film that is entertaining, enlightening, revealing, and ultimately, sad. Thompson is the embodiment of the lyric from Neil Young’s song Rust Never Sleeps: “it’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” Hunter S. Thompson did not rust.