Monday, 29 October 2012

LFF: For No Good Reason Review

Director: Charlie Paul

Starring: Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Richard E. Grant, Terry Gilliam, Hunter S. Thompson, Jann Wenner

Synopsis: A documentary about Ralph Steadman, the artist behind many Hunter S. Thompson illustrations, along with decades of unique and revolutionary artwork.

The Gonzo visionaries were famous mainly for all the wrong reasons; they defied convention, acted out unmorally and set daring new trends. Ralph Steadman was one such visionary whose work has, up until this day, provoked millions of people. In Charlie Paul’s documentary, the genius and novelty of Steadman’s work is sought to be explored.

Paul brings along Johnny Depp (a close friend of Steadman and his notorious partner, Hunter S. Thompson) as interviewer/narrator, making this film seem like a project among friends (also giving it a commercial boost). In this regard the niceties of close companionship fog the more introspective aspects of documentary filmmaking. Fortunately, with Steadman feeling comfortable with Paul and Depp, he does delve into some more personal recollections, though maybe not as often as one would hope. It succeeds in foregrounding a figure many may not know of – a name that only appears at the bottom of his art, without any indication of his personality – as well as detailing the style of his strange yet beautiful art.

Steadman rose to fame when he was employed to work alongside Hunter S. Thompson to illustrate Hunter’s articles and book. This relationship is, as one expect from knowing about the infamous Gonzo journalist, was chaotic. It had its ups and downs throughout the adventures the pair had together – something Paul focuses on heavily. With Hunter being such a larger-than-life figure, the documentary does become fixed on him in parts. It’s something that is perhaps unavoidable but does make you pine for more material and anecdotes about Hunter, fatefully putting Steadman in the corner.

Thanks to Steadman’s time in Hunter’s company he has developed a sharp and wicked wit that, for when he gets his limelight, elevates his profile. He isn’t just some pale and crotchety artist who lingers by the side; he has an intense voice and morale that justifies a film about him. Moving past Hunter, we hear and see Steadman in the company of Richard E. Grant, Terry Gilliam and William Burroughs. He has lived a fascinating life in the company of great artists (much like himself), educated through each experience and meeting.

Steadman’s interests lie not only in art but political activism. The two endeavours are collected in a great montage that flicks through dozens of drawings – some animated at points – giving another life to the works of a smart and creative set of art. It’s a moment that sets you in great awe of the man – there are literally hundreds of drawings, all with a unique flavour.

Not only exposing the agenda and history of Steadman, the film must magnify that distinctive flair; it does in sections of the film, and they are among some of the most seminal sequences of the documentary. Watching Steadman work is a thrill. Many documentaries about artists flash through their life and merely present to you the final piece, in For No Good Reason the process is explored. The smears and harsh splatters of Steadman’s brush reflect a realm of emotions and messages. As Steadman paints a few new pieces he runs his own commentary over what a certain flick of the brush, or what a change in colour, may mean. What’s more, he reveals the technique of his design that for artists is exceptionally enchanting.

All great documentaries implore you to seek out the work of the person in focus and this film achieves that. You leave the cinema determined to read the stories Steadman illustrated, find the collections and even try your hand at some of the art. There is only a niche demographic for For No Good Reason which, whilst distressing, is perfectly understandable for a film about the wacky Gonzo personalities.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

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