The documentary Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson about the is an enjoyable, if uneven take on the life of the much-loved gonzo figurehead and “walking monument to misbehaviour” and is both an inspirational and cautionary tale.
Disclaimer: What follows is less a review than the thoughts it provoked about the life and work of one of my writing heroes.
This film persuaded me/reminded me that being a writer can be very worthwhile and have a positive impact, and fired me up to try to make more of my own writing talent, even if I will never come close to Hunter at his best. But it also showed, once again, that drink and drugs and the whole rock n roll myth can be very destructive. Thompson invented a persona which made him famous, but he became a slave to that one dimensional image and the fame that went with it.
He struggled with demons as do a lot of creative people, in particular an anger and rage that was at times uncontrollable – which no doubt drove him to write in the first place but was ultimately self-destructive in nature. What really stood out for me was his bravery in the early days – riding with the hell’s angels must have took some guts, and he certainly wasn’t scared of being blacklisted by the Washington big-wigs when he covered the 72 US election campaign.
What he showed was that truly great writing isn’t just about being able to string a few sentences together, it’s about taking a stand, taking a risk, going out on the edge, and being a visionary.
He was, of course, renowned for his ability to ingest truckloads of booze and drugs with barely noticeable effects – and as with his sometimes wholly fictional Gonzo journalism, he exaggerated the extent of this for effect, particularly in order to appall “the squares”. But when he failed to cover the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974, opting instead to drink whisky in his hotel swimming pool (he fully expected Mohammad Ali to lose), it marked the turning point where he was no longer in control of his ‘medicine’ because it was now in charge of him.
The film had a lot of interesting footage from Hunter’s attempt to run for sheriff of Aspen and how what started out as a prank became a real possibility, though ultimately ended in (genuine) disappointment. Also his backing of the underdog democrat candidate McGovern (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72) may have helped him get nominated – though a very bad choice (with eerie echoes of Sarah Palin) of unnaturally sweaty man Thomas Eagleton as vice-presidential candidate, who was forced to resign after it was revealed he had undergone shock therapy 3 times, would put paid to his bid. Instead of electing a man who would have ended the Vietnam War immediately and brought through other social reforms, the US public elected the morally vacuous and bizarrely-faced Richard Nixon, and the iconic plastic mask of him that has almost replaced his real face in popular iconography is used in the film as a recurring motif to represent Hunter’s own dark side.
Again, parallels were drawn with recent events, with Nixon and Bush shown as interchangeable figures. Thompson was devastated by the result then of course, and later when George W was elected he sunk into a depression which can only have strengthened his long-standing decision to take his own life. In fact the film opens with Hunter’s reaction to 9/11, one of the few events that got him fired up enough to summon his old talent in his later years. It’s an extraordinarily lucid and prescient piece of writing. Though to many his shotgun suicide was a heroic way to go befitting of the way he lived life, the film’s message, through the words of his closest friends and his own family, was that this was in fact a cop-out by a man whose talent could have continued to have a positive impact on the world – but then as he himself was aware, he had ceased being a great writer many years earlier when the drugs and drink took their hold.
as chosen by Hunter S. Thompson for the compilation ‘Where Were You When The Fun Stopped?’