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Documentary: Gonzo

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There are some names that have gravitas. Hunter S Thompson is one of them. Having not grown up in the United States, and being far too young to remember Nixon, or anything much before ‘the Regan years’ — and even then, Regan was just a guy on the news to me — I’ve never had cause (or motivation) to read Thompson’s much applauded work. And after seeing GONZO: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson… Well, I’m not really sure that I have now.

Thompson has never been much more than a name to me. But his name and the acknowledgement of his work has always carried weight, in that it transposes some level of intellectualism to the person wielding it. To hear someone say that they appreciate Thompson’s work has been a cue for me to immediately put that person into a particular category in my head: The “People who like Hunter S Thompson’s gear” space. In much the same way as if someone were to express a liking for the music of Warren Zevon, or the art of Ron Lim. These are the measures by which we sum people up. But while I’ve always known that Thompson carried weight, I’ve never really had a point of reference as to what *I* thought of that weight. My uninformed opinion has always been that branding someone as a fan of Hunter S Thompson’s work, was a gold star against their name.

Now, what I’m trying to do here isn’t JUST announce my ignorance — this site has over 475 posts which have thoroughly documented that already — but instead to give context to what I have to say about the documentary. My point is that the comments I make here are about the documentary, GONZO: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, and the way that Thompson is portrayed in it. As I have no other point of reference, I just want to be clear that this documentary is my first real window to the man’s life.

What a jerk! Ok, I’m being harsh there, but early on in this documentary Sonny Barger, a memeber of a Hells Angels club in which Thompson had been embedded for 12 months during the early sixties, called Thompson a great writer, but a complete jerk. At the time I dismissed his comments as those of someone who felt they’d been betrayed by the man. But by the end of this documentary I had much the same opinion of the man – Clearly a brilliant writer, but a selfish, self-destructive jerk. Whether or not this is an accurate or fair assessment of the man, I have no idea, but it is the opinion that I came away from the documentary with. Perhaps this is because of my unfamiliarity with the man? Ultimately though, it’s not my opinion of Hunter S Thompson that matters, it’s what I thought of the documentary itself that counts. And I thought that the documentary was great.

While there are a few ‘recreation’ type shots used in this film, for the most part it has been constructed from interviews with people who knew Thompson (his family, friends, colleagues, and the subjects of his writings), news footage, clips from Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which is based on Thompsons book), Johnny Depp reading exerpts from Thompson’s work, home video archives and previous documentary and interview footage shot while Thompson was alive. The result is both immersive and entertaining. I came away from this film feeling a great sense of loss regarding its subject — clearly an incredibly talented man, whose self destructive tendencies were in part responsible for that talent — and knowing far more about him and his writings than I had known before. The man was an absolute legend… for all the wrong AND right reasons.

Now when someone speaks of their appreciation of Hunter S Thompson’s work (more so than just having seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) I’ll have a far greater understanding of what that actually means. Perhaps, once my eyes are in better order I’ll take the time to investigate his work myself… and perhaps that will add another layer to the man, that this documentary neglected to include, or just assumed that everyone already knew.

I want to recommend this documentary, but I’m just not sure if this is the right place for those unfamiliar with his work to start. I feel a little bit like I’ve pulled back the curtain and seen the man working the machine, before I’ve had a chance to visit Oz. [source]

©2008 HDNet Films LLC
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1 Comment

    You managed to articulate what must be a common reaction to this bloke. I have read a couple of his books, and liked them, but from the things I have seen and read about HIM, well…you are right…he was a jerk. Self-destructive drug-addicted alcoholic…sounds like a rock star. Perhaps that is why his life has this vicious edge that is so appealing to so many people. Rock and roll writer with all the pills, bottles and bruised organs to prove it.

    I have been meaning to watch that doco but am not as compelled to as I thought I would be. Someday I will watch it. Maybe.

    Nice write-up there Elroy :)