Assembled over the course of fifteen years---give or take a few months---Charlie Paul's For No Good Reason (2012) dissects the life and exploits of counter-culture icon Ralph Steadman, known to most as the visual representation of Hunter S. Thompson's hallucinatory journalism. Through interviews with Steadman, examinations of his work and career highlights, words from his colleagues and supporters, and even a collection of little or never-before-seen photos and film clips, those new to his work may finally see the precision lurking beneath his chaotic, ink-spattered style of illustration. Even seasoned fans of Steadman, Thompson and their collective body of work should learn a thing or two, as this rare glimpse behind the curtain reveals a thoughtful man who always wanted to change the world through cartooning.
For No Good Reason touches on the largest portions of Steadman's career since 1970...and though nothing is covered in exhausting detail, just hearing it from the horse's mouth makes this a story worth sitting down for. During the course of this 90-minute film, first-hand topics include travelling to America in 1970, photography as inspiration, drawing the homeless, his first encounter with ex-Hell's Angel Hunter S. Thompson, the birth of "Gonzo", Fear and Loathing, working without drugs, The Rumble in The Jungle, personifying Hunter, 1970s politics, early experiments with the Polaroid SX-70, target practice with William S. Burroughs, and much more. Steadman also discusses his artistic influences, from Picasso, Rembrandt and da Vinci to Francis Bacon. Two subjects end the production rather abruptly: Hunter S. Thompson's 2005 suicide, and how Steadman still struggles to deal with losing such a close, personal friend. Still, it's a soap box mentality that serves as Steadman's creative ambitions, spurned by earlier life events like being under the thumb of an oppressive school headmaster. In the artist's own words, he simply wanted to use drawing "as a weapon" and go after bullies.
For this reason, the film's best moments follow Steadman in his art studio; on several occasions, he's more than willing to show us how controlled but spontaneous movements pave the way for work that often surprises himself as much as it surprises us. He used to be afraid to make the first move, to sully that perfect white sheet of paper...but even if mistakes are made, Steadman knows how to work around them. Blending into the background, Charlie Paul and his team were able to capture the artist in his natural habitat: over the course of several years, his increased comfort level assures that Steadman doesn't play to the camera. Paul is refreshingly silent during these intimate studio sessions; acting as host and moderator is Johnny Depp, a long-time friend of Steadman and Thompson who portrayed the latter in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and spearheaded the big-screen adaptation of Thompson's first novel, The Rum Diary.
Not surprisingly, this dissection of such a creative mind shouldn't look like your average documentary. Using clever visual touches, subtle animation effects to bring Steadman originals to life, and an expressive but efficient editing style, For No Good Reason would almost get the job done without words. High-resolution digital images, some taken by the artist himself, showcase some of his best work in great detail, while others were tastefully "sweetened" by Paul and company further down the line. The filmed studio footage also looks quite good, standing in contrast to the worn but watchable vintage home movies, photos, and other goodies from decades past. Most documentaries run the gamut of visual clarity and For No Good Reason falls right in line, yet its messy but appealing subject matter never gets lost in the shuffle.
Aside from Steadman and Depp (who occasionally pulls double duty as the "voice" of Hunter S. Thompson), featured on-screen contributors include Terry Gilliam (director of Fear and Loathing), Richard E. Grant (Withnail & I), Jann Wenner (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson), and more. Though For No Good Reason began production several years before Thompson's death, the notoriously reclusive figure only appears in vintage clips and the like. It's a small but supportive group, likely pared down to ensure the focus remains on Steadman and his work. But also worth noting is the film's music and sound design, which use a mixture of classic and modern tracks---not to mention a few hallucinatory, rear-channel effects---to ensure that your ears will have something to do as well. As a total package, there have been more thorough and engrossing biopics than For No Good Reason...but, similar to the iconic creative team of Steadman and Thompson, the end result of this artist-director pairing just feels like a perfect match.
Originally released on October 12, 2012 at the London Film Festival, For No Good Reason didn't make it across the pond until April of this year. Luckily, the road to home video was a lot shorter, as Sony Pictures Classics offers this documentary as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack only. Much like Jodorowsky's Dune last month, this one-disc package is priced high...but along with a sterling A/V presentation, For No Good Reason also includes plenty of terrific extras.
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, For No Good Reason looks quite good from start to finish. This 1080p transfer appears to replicate the intended color palette quite nicely; talking head interviews and the like are unfiltered and natural, while other portions of this documentary are understandable less...well, normal. Image detail is relatively strong during the recent footage, which appears to be a mixture of digitally-shot video, high quality photographs of Steadman's "permanent collection", and vintage filmed clips from earlier in the artist's career; not surprisingly, the sporadic animation and other diversions have been presented in an attractive, eye-catching manner. Thankfully, no obvious digital manipulation or compression issues hinder the presentation, letting us soak in all the bizarre visuals with minimal distraction. My only mild complaint is the cropping of older footage to fill the 16x9 frame (which only makes existing problems more evident), though some lower resolution material is placed within frames and other backgrounds. The accompanying DVD does what it can with the source material, but it's more of a "loaner copy" than anything else.
DISCLAIMER: The promotional images featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is clean, crisp and front-loaded during interview segments, while the rear channels are used for added effects and many of the frequent music cues by the likes of Slash, The All-American Rejects, Jason Mraz, James Blake, Crystal Castles, Low, The Animals, and others. Don't get me wrong: this is undoubtedly a more visually-minded production than anything else...but the audio holds its own and, more often than not, complements or contrasts these visuals quite nicely. Optional English, SDH, and French subtitles have been included during the film only.
Whoever put this disc together obviously had a good eye for detail: the loading screen, menu design, disc art, and even the timer all mimic or use Steadman's unique style. The actual interface is smartly designed, though several trailers and warning screens must be dealt with beforehand. This one-disc release arrives in a standard dual-hubbed keepcase; no slipcover or inserts are included, while the eye-catching cover artwork uses one of the film's original poster designs.
Fans are treated to a very nice cross section of supplements, leading off with a full-length Audio Commentary featuring director Charlie Paul and producer Lucy Paul. The husband-and-wife filmmaking team do a fine job of filling this track with a mixture of technical details and personal reflections, and their lack of on-screen participation during the film itself doesn't make this redundant. Featured topics include some of the techniques used to create the film's unique visual style, capturing Ralph at work in his studio (and, more importantly, blending in to the background), developing the animation for some of his designs, corralling many of the interview subjects, the soundtrack, "crossover sections" and other re-enactment footage, and much more. It's an entertaining, informative session and well worth checking out.
On a related note, next up is a recent Q&A Session (28:20) featuring Charlie Paul and Ralph Steadman himself. Filmed at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, this chat is introduced by TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers and moderated by John Northcott. It's a decent session as far as these live discussions go, and it looks and sounds quite nice from a technical standpoint. I'd have appreciated subtitles here, but most of the dialogue is easy to understand.
Next up is "Cherrywood Cannon" (7:28), a brand new short film also directed by Charlie Paul. Featuring original artwork by Steadman with animated touches by Kevin Richards and narration by Richard E. Grant, it's based on a story told to Steadman by Dimitri Sidjanski. Originally published as a 1978 hardcover, this new short simply adapts it for the screen.
We're back to more film-related supplements with a collection of Extended Interviews featuring Bruce Robinson (6:01), Richard E. Grant (3:36), and Terry Gilliam (8:27), as well as a handful of Deleted Scenes (18:49 total) entitled "Ralph's Song", "Ralph's Studio", "Dogs", "Cathedrgog" [sic], and "The Blot Symphony" (which details the experimental song heard during the film). These are certainly worth a once-over, even for casual fans, but it's easy to see why some of this material was cut from the film. All are presented in 1080p and Dolby Digital 5.1 and look and sound about as good as the main feature, although some are scaled down quite a bit inside various frames and other background decorations.
Closing things out is the film's Theatrical Trailer (1:29) which, like the other bonus features, looks and sounds great but doesn't include optional subtitles. Aside from this oversight---and the lack of a few photo or artwork galleries, or even more deleted scenes---it's pretty tough to complain about this well-rounded and enjoyable assortment of supplements.
Much like Jodorowsky's Dune, Charlie Paul's For No Good Reason examines a mad genius up close and personal. This is much more of a traditional biopic than a time capsule piece, as it abridges most of Steadman's earlier years and personal life in favor of a professional career retrospective. Either way, this production was anything but a rush job: For No Good Reason was assembled over a fifteen-year period and the effort shows through its visual flair, loyal participants, and most of the entertaining, informative supplements included on this Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Sony's A/V presentation is predictably excellent and, with these strengths in mind, the inflated price tag doesn't sting quite as much. All things considered, it's a fantastic release that Gonzo disciples will devour with reckless abandon. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.