Is it possible to take the temperature of a movie through its soundtrack?
Mid-way through the documentary, Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson [Magnolia Pictures], an old song “Angel or Devil?” is played (it should be noted that, with the exception of Elton John’s schmaltzy “Candle in the Wind,” the music is mostly kicking). And Angel or Devil? is just one of the many questions this film asks and leaves unanswered. Other questions might include: Genius or Idiot? Patriot or Traitor? Artist or Sell-Out? Yes, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson seemed to be some of all these things.
While the word “Life” in the title suggests something a bit deeper than Thompson’s larger-than-life public persona, don’t expect much outside of that realm. There’s a short bit on how he grew up: in a single mom household, poor, often in trouble. Like a lot of us. But what formed him into the father of a new kind of journalism? Who were his influences? Where’d he go to school? Was he really a doctor?
There is much known about how Thompson became a writer that isn’t even touched on in the movie. As a young person, he was said to have painstakingly retyped Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in order to learn writing style. He worked as a copy boy for Time magazine, before being fired for insubordination. He wrote a couple novels, loads of unsuccessful short stories, was a South American correspondent for a Dow-Jones paper and a reporter for the Brazil Herald. These life- and talent-shaping facts didn’t seem worthy of mention, either.
The little personal information that is known about Hunter S. Thompson also didn’t really play into this documentary, for unknown reasons. He joined the US Air Force, for one. And what about his family life? He and his wife conceived six times, but only one son lived and two infants died shortly after their births in the early 1960s. Wouldn’t that possibly play a role in escaping into alcohol and drugs? Perhaps his wife just didn’t want to talk about it—although she did talk about the women and feelings of complete betrayal.
Gonzo is great in giving us a sense of Thompson’s work for editor/publisher Jann Wenner, artist Ralph Steadman, and Rolling Stone in 1960s San Francisco, back when the magazine had style, integrity and was willing to take huge journalistic risks on someone like Thompson. Directed by Alex Gibney, (who made the Oscar-winning Iraq War documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, and Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), this film is a treasure trove of great home movies, news footage, game show appearances and interviews that give the movie a real sense of continuity.
We see the truth (and shame) behind Thompson’s Hell’s Angels connections when a Merry Pranksters party gets out of control. We see Thompson’s disgust with American politics (and we learn to love George McGovern again). And ultimately, we see that fame, not drugs or alcohol, may have been the thing that ruined this almost mythical man. In one interview, Thompson himself explains it, saying that he used to sit in the back of the room and observe the event. Then, wherever he went, he became the event.
So what formed the young Hunter S. Thompson into the father of a new kind of journalism? Into the drug-using, gun-toting, womanizing, alcoholic, brilliant, filthy rich, political revolutionary, cartoon-character that he was? Was his character purely drug and alcohol-formed? Would he have been anyone at all without destroying himself? Was he even happy? Who knows.
As Thompson's life unravels in later years, the movie shows his physical decline (how did his body hold it together as long as it had?), the damage to his family, and the ultimate loss of his ability to write. To watch Thompson blame his depression solely on President George W. Bush and the state of our world affairs after September 11, 2001 seems a little much. Sure, Hunter. We’re all depressed, no one can stand Dubbya or what he’s done. But that's really beside the point, isn't it? Had Hunter been the Gonzo warrior of his earlier days, he would have kept fighting. No, it seemed more like he was looking for an excuse to call it quits. The fact is, Hunter S. Thompson lived exactly as he wanted to, and he made sure he’d die that way, as well. So, he scripted every minute of it, and amazingly pulled it off without a hitch, right down to the hilariously ridiculous funeral.
Gonzo is a great overview on HST for those who don’t know a lot about him. It’s always interesting and entertaining, even if it leaves you with more questions than you had when you walked into the theater. In any case, one thing’s clear: this fallen angel lived a bigger life than most gods. He should be respected, at least, for finding a way to make that happen, and doing it with originality and style.