A review of Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson – opening this weekend
Disclaimer: In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I’m both a fanatical Hunter S. Thompson fan and a documentary lover. I am, however, an asshole above all else, and feel confident that if this sucked I’d be the first one to say it.
Director Alex Gibney, who previously helmed the critically acclaimed Taxi to the Dark Side, does an amazing job reminding me of what I loved about Hunter S. Thompson in the first place. Gibney’s smartest move is quoting liberally from Hunter himself, and he gets damned near all of the choice quotes. Gonzo opens with narrator and famous Hunter buddy Johnny Depp reading a passage from Thompson’s ESPN football column written just after September 11th. Depp’s reading of the extended passage is set to the predictable stock footage, intermingled with cutesy shots of Hunter’s vantage point from his desk at Owl Farm. “The towers are gone now, along with all hopes for peace in our time…” reads the man who helped shoot Hunter’s ashes out of a cannon mounted to a giant Gonzo fist/sword monument (Hunter left instructions for it in his will).
Opening with 9/11 might seem clichéd or melodramatic if the subject were anyone else, but Gibney keeps the focus on Thompson’s words, engaging and eerily prophetic enough on their own that it works. It’s a microcosm of the movie as a whole: Gibney lets Hunter speak for himself, and if anyone was especially talented in that regard, it was Hunter S. Thompson.
Using stock footage, interviews, photographs, scenes from Fear and Loathing, and quirkily re-created scenes set to Depp’s narration of Hunter’s books, Gibney takes us from his early days witnessing gangrapes and brutal beatings riding with the Hell’s Angels to his campaign for the mayorship of Aspen, Colorado (which he promised to rename “Fat City” and at which time he shaved his head so that he could refer to his opponent as “my long-haired opponent”). And then on to the search for the American Dream in Las Vegas (including some of the original audio tapes!) and Hunter’s coverage of the ’72 election campaign, with special attention to the vivid descriptions of Hubert Humphrey’s theretofore unknown use of the illicit Brazilian narcotic Ibogaine, a drug that existed only in Hunter’s imagination. If you’re like me, it’s like watching Behind the Music on your favorite band.
There are talking heads, but most of them are big names – Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Buffett, George McGovern, Jann Wenner, Tom Wolfe. And they all have great Hunter stories. Hunter getting invited to lunch with George McGovern and ordering four margaritas and six beers (all for himself). Hunter demanding that Jan Wenner pay for a Cadillac “because I can’t cover the goddamned American dream in a Volkswagon.” Pat Buchanan always seems ready to recite his favorite Hunter quotes by heart, and Fear and Loathing illustrator Ralph Steadman shares his collection of Hunter’s saved answering machine messages.
Of course, some of the best stories come from the smaller names, like Hunter’s neighbor in Colorado whose introduction begins, “Hunter was my friend and neighbor, the man who never paid his rent, broke up my marriage, and taught my children to smoke dope.” Sort of sums it all up right there, doesn’t it?
The challenge of making a good documentary is being able to cover all the things that make your subject interesting without cheapening it with hype or fake drama. You can love your subject, but don’t make him into goddamned Addidas commercial. Luckily, there’s none of that here. Gibney gives us Hunter in all his incarnations without too much pop psychology or philosophizing about where Hunter fits on the list of all-time most important journalists. He also doesn’t cast a bunch of different actors to play different facets of Hunter’s psyche, thank God.
Gonzo should be an interesting watch for anyone, but if you’re the kind of person who gets a hard on at the mere mention of Hunter’s original audio recordings from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas like I do, well, smoke a joint, smuggle in some Wild Turkey and enjoy the ride. I loved every second.