How often do we forget the real connection between journalism and art? The thread stitching the two together is honesty, and that is what documentary director Charlie Paul aims to capture in his first feature effort: the seams between world-changing reportage and the creative spirit unleashed. Aided and abetted by Johnny Depp, the actor best known as the adaptive avatar of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (first in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and more recently in The Rum Diary), Paul introduces us to Ralph Steadman, a photographer/illustrator who teamed up with Thompson. The two worked on a series of binge-generated projects that sutured the soft flesh of journalism at the time and what Steadman might have called the leathery hide of art, with the rough tough of a field surgeon working without the benefit of anesthesia to dull the pain.
That notion — embracing rather than dulling the pain — emerges toward the end of the film, in fact, when Steadman talks about his unusual Leonardo Da Vinci biography, quite possibly the most documented artist/figure of all time. Steadman found himself drawn to the artist but wondered how he would be able to get inside the artist/inventor’s story for a unique perspective. He settled upon the idea of becoming “Leonardo,” so that he would inhabit the man’s drive to see the world and his curiously challenging nature. What he discovered, as Leonardo, is that life boils down to dealing with “the capacity for taking pain.”
Before Steadman could reach that startling degree of awareness, he spent his early years coming to terms with his illustrations and their potential, noting that, “If I learned to draw properly, I would change the world.” As the film progresses, the meaning of “properly” or what might be better defined as a sense of professionalism is not what Steadman meant.
The documentary taps into a treasure trove of archival footage, allowing Thompson and, later, William Burroughs to speak for themselves, to be themselves alongside Steadman as they engage in their creative pursuits. But there is also time spent in Steadman’s studio with Depp as a witness and conspirator (and audience stand-in), which grants access to the process. Steadman explains the techniques employed, his embrace of the mystery, and guides us to see what can barely be recognized. Drawing “properly” cannot be codified or taught; there are no rules or a Holy Grail of blueprints to be found.
And yet it involves a daily exercise, approaching the blank canvas as a mirror reflecting the self and/or the world, as it is or how it might be — for good or ill. Hooking up with Thompson back in 1970, it is obvious that Steadman was ready to challenge himself. He had already generated enough work for an initial collection of his cartoons — which Paul and a team of animators bring to life with the same unhealthy flair that will become the Gonzo signature — and came to New York, first on his own, to illustrate the life and characters of the streets. A chance call from Thompson led him to the Kentucky Derby, where the pair immersed themselves in drink and the bizarre social scene and, more importantly, each other’s dark sensibilities. They pushed one another down this rabbit hole of a scene — the first of many — and patched together a monster that desired to be something more than mere eyes and ears in the moment.
It was about being honest and truthful about those moments in ways that defied social norms, offering an account of the unfiltered, the uncensored. Who says what lurks in the recesses of the heart or mind? We’re told not to do that — it is wrong, hurtful — but there they were, Thompson and Steadman, doing what they weren’t supposed to do. Whenever the phone would ring, Steadman would know this was the call of the Gonzo Wildman.
In the film, Steadman repeats in almost mantra-like fashion that he saw the potential to change the world through his work, but that never sounds like egomaniacal boasting, not from him. He believes in the potential of that level of honesty, despite also facing the depressing reality of falling short, sometimes far short, of the mark. Through it all, there is a plain-spoken genuineness about him that envelopes his exchanges with Depp.
By the end, viewers will likely get the sense that Steadman tempers the excesses of those around him, but I think that’s the wrong perspective on the man. For No Good Reason shows that the wild side was, and always will be, his territory, and there are plenty of reasons for us to continue to place our trust in him. (Opens May 23 at Esquire Theatre) (R)
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