on November 18, 2008
On February 20, 2005, the end of an era was blown out not with a whisper but with a bang. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson chose that day to end his own life by committing suicide with one of the many guns he owned. It was a loss for a generation that grew up reading him in Rolling Stone Magazine, a loss for fans and a loss for journalism.
While two films (WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS) were made about his life, it is only now that Hunter reaches the screen in his own words, in his own actions via the newly released documentary GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON. And what a treat it is to see and hear him speak for himself.
The film looks back at the entire life of this maverick that changed the face of journalism by making it not just about looking at issues from the outside in, but from the inside out. Gonzo journalism often placed the writer into the scene of what was being written about since that writer was actually there. Gonzo journalists write as participants as opposed to voyeurs. And Hunter was a definite participant.
The film begins with his youth covering the usual biopic necessities of what possibly made him choose the direction he did. But it moves forward to his youth when he chose to be a writer and pursue that dream. Not only did he pursue it, he got involved in it.
The first break Hunter found was when he commingled with the motorcycle gang the Hells Angels to find out just what they were all about. The pieces he put together on the gang were wrapped up into a book titled HELLS ANGELS that was considered the quintessential source of information on gangs. A falling out with the gang led to Hunter's moving on to another topic.
Those topics were wide in range but always confronted with the brutal honesty as seen through the eyes of Thompson. Be it the Democratic convention in Chicago where the peace and love generation was beaten down by those in power or the great American dream demolished in his eyes as the city of Las Vegas, Hunter took typewriter ink to paper and using wit and a skewered sense of words defined the world for his generation.
Hunter's involvement in politics is shown ranging from his own run as sheriff of Aspen to his following the campaign trail in 1972 elections. Having been alive to witness the end of an era with the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Hunter found hope in the form of George McGovern. But that was never to be.
But all things change. And this is where the truly sad part of the story of Hunter S. Thompson slopes downward. The involvement with drugs and alcohol combined with the glory brought on by celebrity status took its toll on Thompson. No longer able to blend in without being recognized his ability to cover a story changed as did his life.
The movie is an examination of a writer whose works are still read today. The director uses interviews with people who knew Hunter intimately like his wives, son and business partner to those who got to know him while he covered their stories. Sonny Barger of the Hells Angels, Ralph Steadman, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone and more all find screen time discussing this amazing author. Each has their own personal vision of who Hunter was and how he affected them.
What we are left with is the story of a man who wanted to change the world only to have the world change him. In some ways for the better, but not always. The words of Thompson describing flying bats and lizard people during hallucinogenic experiences were perhaps nowhere near as frightening as the real life demons he confronted as his life changed. Perhaps it was one of those demons that urged him on to commit the final deed of his life.
What one walks away with after watching this film is perhaps a little more understanding of the man. Perhaps you walk away with an interest in finding those items that he wrote. But more than anything you walk away with a feeling of loss at never having appreciated him to his full extent while he was here with us. A dynamite film that informs, entertains and shines a light on a true talent.
"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" is an overview of the life and passions of Hunter S. Thompson, inventor of "gonzo" journalism and iconic hero of liberalism -at least for those liberals who didn't mind all the guns. Through interviews with an impressive variety of Thompson's friends and associates, narration by Johnny Depp, and archival footage of Thompson himself, director Alex Gibney takes us through Thompson's life, concentrating on his career and image. The story starts in earnest in 1965, when Thompson was "imbedded" with the Hell's Angels for over a year, his first exercise in participatory journalism and the subject of his first book, "Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs" (1966).
That's followed by Thompson's experience of the 1968 Democratic Convention, his bid for Sheriff of Aspen on a pro-marijuana platform in 1970, the story behind "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", and his work for "Rolling Stone" magazine, including his coverage of the McGovern-Nixon presidential campaign, which became "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail `72", and finally his suicide in 2005. The film doesn't attempt to be a comprehensive biography. Thompson's years in the Air Force are not even mentioned, for example. I was pleasantly surprised by the array of people who consented to be interviewed: his first wife Sondi Wright (Sandy Thompson at the time), Tom Wolfe, former President Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Pat Buchanan, "Rolling Stone" co-founder Jan Wenner, Jimmy Buffett, Thompson's frequent collaborator the artist Ralph Steadman, among others.
Alex Gibney is conventional in his approach to his unconventional subject. He doesn't criticize Thompson as much as he might or glorify him as much as fans sometimes do. This attempt at objectivity makes "Gonzo" a good introduction to Hunter S. Thompson but also a bit bland. Ralph Steadman's art work is used liberally throughout the film, which is great. And there is some attempt to convey Thompson's eventual frustration with the public persona that he had fostered. Though "Gonzo" isn't a fawning look at the man, it is a fond look. Thompson's rejection of the sham of objectivity in journalism may be admirable, he was a man who liked to scrutinize other people's ethics much more than his own. "Gonzo" leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions about things like that. At times I wished that it were more incisive, but there is a lot of interesting material here.
The DVD (Magnolia 2008): Bonus features include 5 deleted scenes, 19 extended interviews, a gallery of 75 drawings by Ralph Steadman, 8 Photo Galleries, including old photos, pages from Thompson's notebooks, and other memorabilia, a list of 18 of Hunter's Guns, a tribute performance of "Wayward and Weary" by Tift Merritt (4 min), 2 audio excerpts from "The Gonzo Tapes" of Thompson and Oscar Acosta in Las Vegas 1971, and a feature commentary by director Alex Gibney. Gibney takes us through the when, where, and what we see in the film, providing some additional understanding of the footage, and he offers comments on Thompson. Subtitles are available for the film in Spanish.
on December 4, 2008
I've been intrigued by HST ever since I was a kid growing up in Evergreen, Colorado in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Word of the "Freak Ticket" and its mighty and outrageous leader made its way over the mountains from Aspen and astonished all of us. His audacity echoed in those mountains (and still does to this day). I also recall perusing those famous issues of Rolling Stone at the Walgreen's magazine counter where HST told-tale of all his intrepid investigations, and where sinister evil seemed to lurk around every dark corner. And my appreciation for his unique approach to things has grown as I've matured. I see him as a patriot, and as a courageous one at that. It takes courage to tell the truth about things--or something close to the truth, but conveyed in a very interesting way--especially when there are lots of powerful forces out there praying for your demise, and maybe even plotting it.
I haven't read everything HST wrote, but I've read most of it, and I've read a biography or two as well. I was delighted when I heard about this documentary, and I rented it off of Netflix the moment it was listed. And, yes, I'll probably end up buying it for my library of 1960's retrospectives. I'm absolutely fascinated by everything that happened in the US--and the world as well--between 1965 and 1975. It was an amazingly vital and dynamic period of our history, and will probably never again be matched during my life or the life of my children. HST was a major player in several of those realms from that period.
But, on the whole, this documentary seemed a little flat to me. I was vaguely confused from time to time. It seemed lacking in continuity. For example, they discuss the Ali/Frazer fight in Africa in the early 1970's--which HST buoycotted because he thought Ali was going to be destroyed; so, instead of going to the fight, HST took a swim--and then the next phase shows HST in the late 1990's or early 2000's--swollen, belligerent, dysfunctional, bizarre. They omitted almost everything relating to the three decade time-frame in between. Those decades were his decades of decline; I would have liked to know the particulars of why and how.
I was frequently distracted by trying to figure out where and when a given episode occured. The presentation was definitely not a chronological presentation, and so the viewer has to establish their own time line of events. It was repeatedly difficult to place the descriptions of disparate developments into any type of exacting, fluid context. The film needed a voice-over narrator to provide segue continuity and to make for a comprehensive, smooth examination of the man and his event-rich life. Instead, we get this varied, slightly jagged, series of interviews where sometimes extremely significant events are mentioned, almost in passing. I found myself developing more questions as the film went along rather than getting answers. I looked HST up on Wikipedia this morning, and there were dozens of interesting features to this man's career which were not even alluded to in this documentary--major gaps relating to essential aspects of his life story. (Example: his falling out with Jann Wenner and aborted assignments to Vietnam and elsewhere.)
True, I'm grateful to have seen the great footage, much of which I had never seen before. And the interviews with Jann Wenner,Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, HST's wives, and McGovern and some of the others did provide some salient insights. But my curiosity continued to grow rather than to be sated. I would have liked to hear recollections from Johnny Depp, and Bill Murray, two friends who I'm sure could have offered a lot, and I would have liked to have heard more from HST's son, who seems like an articulate and amazingly normal man.
HST was a blemished figure, and probably he is more myth than reality when all is said and done. I recall seeing him on a late night talk show (Leno, I think) in the early 2000's. HST was thoroughly drunk and slurred every word. He was a bloated mess, and, essentially, he was already dead. But, for that magical decade or so, few people burned brighter and more intensely than Hunter S. Thompson. His unique combination of anger and humor is something which will be hard to match, and he is definitely one of the colorful characters from the century which we have just left behind.
on November 20, 2008
If you are a fan of Hunter S. Thompson you will love this movie.
The archival footage is extraordinary,and the interviews are great. Johnny Depp does top notch narration as Hunter.
By the end of this movie, you really get a feel for the man that was Hunter S. Thompson. This was a very deep and moving experience.
Even the soundtrack is flawless!(CCR, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, etc...)
The special features are also superb, with commentary, a music video,audio excerpts,extended interviews,deleted scenes, all the "gonzo" art,and even a photo gallery, plus more.
If you like Hunter, then this is a no-brainer purchase.
I plan to also buy the soundtrack,audio tapes,and books.
Happy "Gonzo" watching.
on July 15, 2012
Worth watching for a different perspective on the 60's and a counter-culture writer's life. The film mixes documentary clips with the Johnny Depp 'Fear and Loathing' film, which kind of works in a way. I enjoyed seeing Ralph Steadman's story of encountering Thompson, and actually seeing Steadman in the process of creating his art. Artists will like this part I think, Steadman is given quite a bit of screen time and the art is shown quite well, not just in brief flashes. Jann Wenner was interesting too, to see the perspective of Thompson's editor, what it was like to be on the receiving end of a writer's journey. Some great TV clips from the Hell's Angels book era are shown too, like from the 'Whats My Line' show, and seeing an actual Hell's Angel riding his Harley into the TV studio on camera is priceless. The scene of the Chicago convention riots really reminds me of the Occupy police riots, and how if anything, the police and America as a whole are even more fascist now than in the 60's. Anyway, in the end it is kind of a sad testimonial to the dead-end of drugs and alcohol. For all of Thompson's evangelism of peyote, it didn't seem to do him much good spiritually or mentally, or even as a writer, though the vision of Las Vegas as populated by lizard people is not too far off.
on August 13, 2016
Awesome! Must have for Hunter S Thompson fans great blend of footage of Hunter the few films about him,and accounts from the people who's lives he influenced and meddled with. Made me miss him and the Woody Creek tavern so very much.
on April 27, 2016
This was the first time I had to exchange a product through Amazon (the first dvd was defective) and exchanging it for a new copy was incredibly fast and easy. Five stars for Amazon. The documentary is an interesting look at Hunter's life, but I feel like it moves a bit too fast and doesn't really do him justice in some parts. The book (of the same name) does a better job and digs deeper into his life. I definitely recommend giving it a read if you have the time. Overall, the documentary was pretty great, definitely worth a watch, especially if you're a Hunter fan. And, I mean, Johnny Depp ... I'm a little biased, but he did a great job narrating.
on November 17, 2009
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson: 6 out of 10: Is Hunter S Thompson any more relevant to modern journalism than Joe Namath is to modern football? After all, both were men of their times. In addition, both faded badly by the mid-seventies. Thompson's early work is excellent (a copy of "The Proud Highway" sits on my bookshelf) and reached its pinnacle with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.
A mere three years later Rolling Stone publisher Jenn Warner had become so fed up with Thompson he basically tried to have him killed.
As [...] puts it "Then, early one evening in March 1975, Hunter was watching a nightmarish film of the evacuation of Da Nang on the evening news. The phone rang, and Hunter picked it up. It was Wenner, saying, "How would you like to go to Vietnam?" Hunter could not resist. The collapse of the American empire was a happening tailor-made for his talents. Within days, he was heading out over the Pacific. He arrived in Saigon hours after Thieu's palace had been bombed and staffed by his own Air Force. For a man who lived with the conviction that the world was going to end next Monday, this was an especially ominous portent. Thompson had the sense of "walking into a death camp." This was it. He would never get out alive. As it turned out, the fate that was in store for him was even worse. Thompson discovered that, even as he was on his way to Vietnam, Wenner had taken him off retainer - in effect, fired him - and with the retainer went his staff benefits, including health and life insurance." Also leaving him no way out of Vietnam... a one-way ticket if you will.
Dude that is cold...
And that is the very nature of the problem with this documentary. Why is not this story mentioned? Who knows? It certainly was a turning point in Thompsons life (He apparently became more withdrawn and paranoid afterwards... understandably so)
Gonzo is a pollyanna look at Thompson. The abuse of his first marriage gets a glancing look and all the interviewees (Including Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan and Jenn Werner) seem hesitant to speak ill of the dead.
The fact that in a few short years Thompson turned from a well-respected writer into a Muppet and Doonesbury cartoon is not covered well. The fact is mentioned but the reasons are glossed over. It is as if the film is worried that by mentioning his failures it will reduce his significance.
Yet, I would argue that Thompson's effect on Journalism is larger than he gets credit for. Reporters nowadays often ignore facts, concentrating instead on how events make them feel. Anderson Cooper crying during the Hurricane Katrina coverage threatened to become a bigger story than the storm itself. (He was not helped when fellow Mensa candidate Wolf Blitzer said "You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals'many of these people, almost all of them that we see are so poor and they are so black")
The documentary never really focuses on this aspect either. Gonzo seems to fear pulling back any of the masks its subject wears presumably scared of what it might find. Gonzo would have been better served concentrating on one period of time and focusing its energies.
That said, for those unfamiliar with Hunter S Thompson outside of his Muppet form this is a good start. Moreover, if it gets people to read his early work so much the better.
on April 21, 2016
I rekindled interest in HST when I started rereading Generation of Swine. This film is a comprehensive review of HST's life. I was unaware of his relationship with Ralph Steadman which figures prominently in the story. But then, there is so much I don't know about everything. Especially enjoyed the interviews with Pat Buchanan.
on January 14, 2009
I became a fan of Hunter S. Thompson the day I opened up the latest issue of Rolling Stone and began reading the first installment of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", and continued to be a fan for the rest of his life, in spite of the decline in his writing (which began, as far as I was concerned, as early as "The Curse of Lono"), so I approached this film with great interest and excitement. And much like Thompson's work, I found parts of it to be highly entertaining while other parts were almost unbearable. For me, the best stuff was the achival film footage of Thompson at work and play, being interviewed, campaigning for sheriff, etc. The worst stuff was Johnny Depp reading Thompson's writing: the written word doesn't always work so well when read aloud, and Depp's almost somnambulant recitation shines a glaring light on just how stylized and contrived Thompson's words could be. What worked PERFECTLY on the page falls flat on its face when uttered aloud (a big problem for me with the film version of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" as well). Another shortcoming of the film was the director's tendency to devote too much time to the events Thompson was writing about: there are parts of the film that made me feel like I was watching a documentary on the History Channel about something other than HST. It also seems that 85% of the movie was devoted to about ten years of Thompson's life ('65-'75), and although this was undoubtedly the most important part of his life as a writer and activist, it still seems ridiculously lopsided (the director addresses this issue in his commentary). The best moments here are absolutely 5-star material, but there's a fair bit of stuff that I could have done without. The special features section has some excellent additional film as well.