The legends surrounding the eccentric writer Hunter S. Thompson appear, at least to some degree, to be accurate.??The new documentary Gonzo, narrated by his muse, Johnny Depp, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and is currently playing at the Broadway Theater in Salt Lake City. The film sheds new light on Thompson’s life by interviewing a variety of people that personally knew the man.??
Hunter’s ex-wife, Sandy gives illuminating accounts of Thompson. She describes the emotional experience that Thompson had after the riotous 1968 democratic convention, one of the few times she saw him cry. There are also interviews with his son Juan Thompson, who appears to be strikingly well adjusted compared to his erratic father. Juan describes life in his household by saying, “You didn’t really question it. I mean, he would get up at 5 p.m. and be eating breakfast while I was eating dinner.”
??The documentary also explores Thompson’s roots as a writer. Growing up as something of a troublemaker, Thompson decided at one point that, although he didn’t think he was much good at anything else, he could make it as a writer. To develop his chops, he copied and re-copied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a book whose theme of disillusionment impacted Thompson’s writing profoundly.
The first hour of the film is enthralling as the audience is taken through Thompson’s youth, and then further into 1960s San Francisco, the epicenter of the counter-culture movement and where much of Thompson’s writing really started to develop. We see Thompson’s stint with The Hell’s Angels and subsequent book on the disturbing experience. We also see Thompson’s humorous run for mayor of Aspen on the “freak” ticket, two of his proposed policies being the legalization of all drugs and changing the name of Aspen to “Fat City” to deter developers from coming to the city.
Then we get to Thompson’s defining book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was written originally as coverage of a race for Rolling Stone magazine, but quickly became an important book that helped define the counter-culture era and its post-disillusionment. At one point, Depp reads Thompson’s famous passage from Fear and Loathing:??”There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. …??So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
The film then describes Hunter’s experience on the 1972 campaign trail where he documented his disgust with Richard Nixon and support for democratic nominee George McGovern. Although at this point the film starts to drag somewhat, it does effectively show the political disillusionment that befell Thompson when the candidates he supports, forced to run typical campaigns, lose their initial appeal.
??Although the frenzied drug use mythology that hovers over Thompson’s persona, especially as portrayed by Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is somewhat exaggerated, the documentary shows that drug use was a part of Thompson’s life. Through audio clips, we hear at one point in the film where Thompson has been sent to South Africa to cover the legendary Foreman vs. Ali fight. His friend, cartoonist Ralph Steadman, is in the room, saying, “We should really go to this event.” But Thompson instead opts to use cocaine and then do laps in the pool, thereby missing the fight he was sent to cover by Rolling Stone. This is where, as indicated in the film, Thompson’s career really started to decline.
Toward the end of the documentary, ex-wife Sandy notes that while some view Thompson’s suicide in February of 2005 as something noble, it is in fact a real tragedy; not just the loss of his life, but also because the effect his writing could have on the current state of politics will never be actualized.
?But happily for Thompson, his reputation only seems to grow grander and more mythological with time, and surely this documentary will introduce new people to one of the most influential writers of the counter-culture era.