Run time: 120 mins
In Theaters: Friday 19th December 2008
Box Office USA: $1.0M
Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Fresh: 81 Rotten: 13
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Alex Gibney
Starring: Hunter S. Thompson as Himself (archive footage), Johnny Depp as Himself (narrator)
Along with the more personal documentary Breakfast with Hunter, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson stands as a seminal work of talking head biography. It tracks down many of the important people in the Kentucky-born bad boy's life, and lets them wax poetic and profound for almost two hours. Within the reminiscences we learn of his initial love of writing, his time as part of the notorious outlaw motorcycle gang, his experiences with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, a run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, his eyewitness account of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and his various run-ins and affiliations with members of both the counterculture and Establishment.
As a narrative, writer/director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) spends a great deal of time highlighting Thompson's triumphs in the '60s and '70s. We are walked through the beginnings of his career, see the response to his exposé on the Angels, learn the reason for his residency at Rolling Stone, and witness the rock star like lifestyle he led during the time. Many of the comments recall a man capable of holding his liquor and then some, of consuming copious amounts of differing drugs and yet never really giving in to their brain-dulling devices. As such noted collaborators as illustrator Ralph Steadman and reporter Tim Crouse explain, a steady state of intoxication seemed to fuel his literary fire.
As narrator Johnny Depp reverentially reads some of the wild man's work, we hear first hand accounts of his atomic temper, his lax parenting, his rampant womanizing, and the late '70s downfall that led to a later life filled with unfulfilled dreams and a decided dip in quality. A key theme Gibney continuously focuses on is Thompson's self-destructive nature. He constantly undermined his actions, usually in a snit about something minor or beyond his ability to tolerate. We are there when he blows up at Alex Cox over the decision to "animate" the "Wave Speech" from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (it's one of the reasons he was fired, and Terry Gilliam took over), and experience the upheaval when first wife Sandy discovers audio tapes of his infidelities.
If there is anything missing from the sensational personal overview, it's a smattering of critical context. Even when McGovern Campaign Manager Gary Hart tries to denounce a certain aspect of Thompson's personality, he proffers a sincere apology. Indeed, the idol worship that drove Thompson into exile during the '80s is evident in every onscreen comment, pro or con. For those who already know a great deal about the quintessential rebel, a few more details would have been nice. As with most myths, however, clarity is never necessary -- and in the case of this mysterious media figure, the lack of information only adds to his allure. And for a man who lived on legend for most of his life that seems suitable.