Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)
The Globe and Mail Review
It's hard to resist the Great Gonzo
Friday, July 18, 2008

Genre: documentary, biography

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Written and directed

by Alex Gibney

Featuring Hunter S. Thompson, Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Buffett, Jimmy Carter, Johnny Depp, George McGovern, Jann Wenner

Classification: 14A


Dr. Hunter Thompson (the honorific came from a mail-order divinity school) was our first blogger, a skilled journalist who wrote funny, vivid opinion pieces about his time and place - Nixon's America - in the magazines of his day: The Nation, Scanlan's Monthly and, his most frequent stomping ground, Rolling Stone.

Late for a piece on the Kentucky Derby in 1970, he pounded out a first-person rant about his native state. "This is pure gonzo - if this is a start, keep rolling," a friend commented. And so he did, feeding primitive fax

machines with a brand of pugnacious commentary

now commonplace on the


But Thompson was also a romantic who fell in love with flower-in-your-hair San Francisco, circa 1965; an artist who learned his craft by retyping The Great Gatsby to capture the music of beautiful writing. To get over Nixon's election, he required a great deal of medicine - enough pharmaceuticals to stop a herd of elephants, chased by a bottle of bourbon, daily.

Unfortunately, the Great Gonzo became famous - his persona showing up in newspaper cartoons and movies - just as his talent ran dry. Where once his Wild Turkey-fuelled tirades held spooky truths ("Nixon ... speaks for the werewolf in us ... on the nights when the moon comes too close"), he lapsed into gibberish. Though a celebrity, he knew he was no longer much of a writer. I am going to kill myself, he told girlfriends and wives. He finally did, shooting himself in the head, in 2005.

Alex Gibney's documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, is an amused and affectionate look at the writer who formed a crucial link between the New Journalism of the 1960s and today's blogosphere.

Like many modern American documentaries, the film is an enterprising pop confection. Gonzo begins with an actor playing Thompson hammering on a typewriter the morning of 9/11. Meanwhile, the familiar image of jets lancing the World Trade Center plays out on a rear-screen projection behind him, while narrator Johnny Depp mimics Thompson's bleak monotone: "We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say," Thompson-Depp intones. "Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq...."

From there, we travel quickly through a treasure trove of archival material. Just as writers in the past kept letters to document their lives and times, Thompson accumulated an audio and video scrapbook. Much of his life is on display here: Thompson appearing on the old quiz show To Tell the Truth; the beyond-hammered journalist in Nevada, researching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; his 1970 bid to become sheriff of Aspen, Colo.; and much later, in the nineties, orgies with women who look like they just slid off a strip-club pole.

Filmmaker Gibney (who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side) has also lined up many celebrity journalists and politicians for the film, including Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Tom Wolfe. They talk about Thompson as the rampaging heretic-entertainer. Illustrator-partner Ralph Steadman, an artist who appears to use blood clots for ink, and two ex-wives fill in the gory details of Thompson's private life.

"Does he have any guns?" a police officer asked when called to Thompson's ranch by frightened first wife Sondi Wright.

"Does he have any guns?" she said with a snort. "He has 22 and they're all loaded."

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson does a lively, skillful job explaining the author's career. Viewers may, however, find themselves wishing for more dope on Thompson's life. We want to know more about the poor, fatherless Kentucky kid who read Twain and Fitzgerald to learn to express himself. There are no interviews with childhood friends or army buddies. No Rosebud-like clues to explain one of America's great impractical jokers.

Still, it's hard to resist Gonzo and its primary subject. Everyone here tells their Thompson stories with a smile and a shrug. And it is hard not to be amused. One of the journalist's favourite books was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and like Huck, Thompson had a gift for mischief. He was the kind of man who, in his 1970 run for sheriff, shaved his head bald just so he could point to his ultra-conservative rival and say, "My long-haired opponent...."

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