From Alex Gibney, the award winning director of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room comes Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Doctor Hunter S. Thompson, an interesting is uniformly praising documentary that examines exactly what its title implies. The picture begins with an all too brief look at Thompson's early years in Kentucky and some of the difficulties he encountered there as a young man before moving on and covering the genesis of his literary career and his run for Sheriff in Aspen, Colorado. Of course, soon enough we move on to his work at Rolling Stone, where he first rose to prominence, before taking a look at his work on the 1972 Presidential Campaign tour. From there, the documentary shifts its focus to his later work before closing off by discussing his death by suicide in 2005.
With a subject as interesting as Hunter S. Thompson it's almost impossible to make a boring film. The man is quirky as can be and his unorthodox personality and world views make for interesting food for thought. By interviewing Hunter's son, Juna, and his two ex-wives as well as a wealth of people who knew him and who he worked with, Gibney's documentary does a very good job of explaining what it was that people liked and appreciated about the man and about his writing. What it doesn't do a very good job of, however, is explain just why Thompson was the way he was, and that's a wasted opportunity that results in a movie that, as interesting as it is, does little to bring anything new to the table.
The film does a good job of using appropriate clips from throughout Thompson's life by way of plenty of interesting archival footage as well as using clips from the films that have been inspired by his life - Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and Where The Buffalo Roam starring Johnny Depp and Bill Murray as the good doctor respectively. Interview clips with luminaries such as author Tom Wolfe, illustrator and sometimes co-conspirator Ralph Steadman, musician Jimmy Buffet, Johnny Depp and others all provide ample evidence of Thompson's influence and deserving legacy but again amount to little more than appreciation pieces, they don't get very far below the surface.
Taken as a simple overview of Thompson's life and career, this film works and it works well but those of us who already know the basics are likely going to be left wanting more. While it's hard to cover everything in under two hours, more details on Thompson's suicide and his reasoning for that as well as more insight into his private life and his early years would have gone a long way towards putting some flesh on what is essentially a decent skeleton but these key formative factors in the man's life are skimmed over, sadly.
Ultimately, this is an interesting and entertaining movie with some appropriate somber moments and a good ending that the man himself would probably have appreciated. It's a solid tribute Thompson and the work he left us with and a minor critique on the conditions of the world he chose to leave behind. It could have been a stronger biographical piece and been a better movie for it but Gibney chose not to go that route. Regardless, it's a picture that's well worth a watch, particularly for those with a fondness for 'Gonzo Journalism' or an interest in sixties counter culture.
The film is presented in a nice 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The archival clips vary in quality and some look to be in rougher shape than others but generally the image is strong and stable throughout the duration of the film even if some of the older material shows its age in the form of scratches and softness. The newly shot footage looks just fine, however, and there aren't any major problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement and only some minor shimmering in a couple of scenes to note.
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is pretty decent but like the video quality, it fluctuates a bit depending on the source material. The narrated bits and newer interview clips are nice and clear, however, even if some of the archival bits have some background hiss. Generally, things sound good more often than not and the problems with the mix have nothing to do with the authoring and everything to do with old source material. The soundtrack in particular has some nice punch to it and it helps the film quite a bit for that reason.
The extras start off with a decent commentary track that comes courtesy of writer/director Alex Gibney that discusses his own feelings on Thompson and his experiences in making this picture. He shares a few interesting stories about working with the various participants who show up in the film and about much of the research that went into the production. The commentary won't change your opinion of the film or its subject but it's moderately interesting and worth checking out if you dug the movie.
The best extras are the deleted scenes that include some interesting archival clips of Hunter from various 8mm, sources, some extended interview bits, and assorted random and unedited bits that were trimmed for use in the feature. Also check out the excerpts from the Gonzo Tapes that are included here, as they're fascinating in an 'out there' kind of way and do lend some interesting insight into Hunter's persona.
Rounding out the extra features are a still gallery of photographs, a gallery of Ralph Steadman's artwork, a list detailing information on Thompson's infamous gun collection, and a clip of a musician named Tift Merrit performing a song called 'Wayward And Weary' that was inspired by this movie.
Thompson's loyal following will eat this up but as interesting as the documentary is, it covers a fair bit of the same ground that other features focusing on the late journalists bizarre life have covered previously. That said, the extras are decent and the presentation is fine. Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is recommended for devoted enthusiasts of the man's work and a very solid rental for everyone else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.