Movie Review: Artist of anarchy and ink splash reflects in film

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Anti-Establishment Baby Boomers -- along with their admirers, chroniclers and smillennial wannabes -- will not want to miss a dazzling documentary tribute to the great Gonzo artist Ralph Steadman.

For no good reason, it is titled “For No Good Reason.” But for very good reason it employs the narrating presence and assistance of Johnny Depp, on a pilgrimage to the Kent country homestead of a Brit who put the visual shock into the verbal fear-and-loathing of Hunter S. Thompson.

Now a robust 78 (with an uncanny resemblance to Rod Steiger), Mr. Steadman enjoyed a long, anarchic partnership with the late great American iconoclast, illustrating his most famous articles and books, in and out of Rolling Stone. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72” were their most notably outrageous celebrations of radical young America in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

“I thought what I’d do, if I ever learned to draw properly, was try to change the world,” says the artist.

'For No Good Reason'

Starring: Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson.

Rating: R for language, some drug content and brief sexual images.

No more or less.

His signature artwork consisted of violent, ink-spattered caricatures of Thompson in safari hat and sunglasses, with cigarette holder, during drug-crazed hijinx -- “vicious drunken nightmares” -- at the Kentucky Derby, Honolulu Marathon, Vietnam protests and the Chicago Democratic Convention police riots of 1968.

Mr. Steadman’s savage pen perfectly complemented Thompson’s ferocious reports on the war and Richard Nixon.

“America was where everything going wrong with the world was being nurtured,” he muses. Then and now, he would vehemently protest the “mindless arrogance” that produced wars like Johnson’s and Nixon’s in Vietnam and George W. Bush’s in Iraq.

Johnny Depp plays it straight in their sweetly minimal interactions, watching Mr. Steadman paint (splat and splatter!) in his studio and periodically inquiring about the process. Needless to say, there’s a very real method to the seeming madness: Mr. Steadman hurls a blob of India ink on a white sheet, then examines the result for hints...

“I see a horse in there,” he mumbles. “It’s an unloved pet... It’s a frame of mind...It’s a terrible thing... There’s an event going on here...” Next, he blows on it, literally spray-painting color highlights here and there, while referencing his inspirations from Rembrandt and Picasso.

William S. Burroughs, Terry Gilliam and Jann Wenner weigh in with their bits on a visionary satirist whose angry vitriol was a way of getting back at authority in the wreckage and disintegration of the ‘60s peace-and-love counterculture. Not least of Mr. Steadman’s reflective regrets is the demise of his collaboration-friendship with Thompson --“the death of fun,” as he puts it. “That’s what happens to everything ... it disappears eventually.”

 Director Charlie Paul’s documentary --15 years in the making -- is his first feature-length effort after a career of TV commercials and music videos. (Some of the soundtrack music here is wonderful, especially Tom T. Hall’s song "I Love,” performed by Jason Mraz.) Mr. Paul’s transfer of Mr. Steadman’s fabulous, horrific images to the big screen involves a dizzying variety of formats, from 35, 16 & Super 8 mm film, to digital HD and montages of old Polaroids and original Minolta camera negatives.

Unfortunately, however, Mr. Paul doesn’t trust his terrific raw material to do the job but, instead, opts to spice it up with endlessly busy (sometimes downright cheesy) reenactments and fancy hit-and-miss F/X. As a result, the film lacks the deranged spontaneous spark of its subject -- as well as any mention of his wife or family. And there’s too much hip hagiography of Hunter. Turns out that Mr. Steadman never took drugs (except booze) and that, in the end -- sans drugs -- he was really more recklessly and artistically daring than Thompson.

A great scene of his painting his dog’s portrait tells you that -- and everything else you need to know -- visually.

Mr. Steadman was and remains the most important cartoonist of this or any era since George Grosz, and the documentary at hand should rekindle an awareness and appreciation of his disturbing genius. God bless Rolling Stone and “For No Good Reason,” for all its overproduced faults. In our age of wimpy, priggish, middle-of-the-road media meisters, the Steadman phenomenon -- and this film experience of it -- is a rare thing worth celebrating.

Opens today at Regent Square Theater. 

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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