Fleshing out an icon is never an easy task, especially when the icon’s history is blurry and poorly curated. L.A.’s first punk “star” was one Darby Crash — songwriter, junkie and leader of the Germs, a late ’70s band that recorded a single album and never toured, yet in hindsight was the first SoCal punk band to matter. Actor Shane West and writer-director Rodger Grossman have a clear, unwavering perspective on Crash that should entice curiosity seekers and old punks to “What We Do Is Secret,” a highly personal take on the ins and outs of creating and maintaining a band.
While the five years between Crash’s high school expulsion and his fatal overdose the night before John Lennon’s murder frame the pic, emphasis is squarely on the singer’s creation of a persona for himself and his band. Crash (born Jan Paul Beahm) gives his friends new names — Pat Smear, Lorna Doom and so on — and regardless of their inability to play an instrument, puts them in his band. A troubled poet with no parental guidance or love, Crash is the intelligent unpopular kid writing rules for all the other unpopular kids; it provides him with his idea of unconditional love.
In a striking performance from Bijou Phillips as Doom and refreshingly supportive takes from Rick Gonzalez as Smear and Ashton Holmes as Crash’s confidant Rob Henley, the idea of band-as-family — and Crash as benevolent patriarch — is reinforced throughout “Secret.” Phillips’ Doom lights up in a unique way whenever she’s in Crash’s company or simply talking about him; Gonzalez gets the warm-and-fuzzies when things are going right with the Germs, then turns disdainful when adversity sets in.
In his long-gestating feature debut, Grossman uses Crash’s well-documented love of wordiness as a subtle foundation, finding several places to insert Crash reading his lyrics and writings, and capturing Crash in interview situations in which he defies the notion of punks as monosyllabic ne’er-do-wells. Pic opens in black-and-white, with Crash expounding on his theory of how everything works in a circle and the Germs are his “circle one.” The Germs’ songs, too, are extended lyrical workouts, and without saying so, pic makes clear that Crash was a poet of distinction, a man whose style was significantly distanced from the best bands of New York (Ramones, Talking Heads) and England (the Clash, Sex Pistols).
In December 1975, when “Secret” opens, Crash has begun to apply David Bowie’s song “Five Years” as a mantra for his “plan.” Grossman creates an insular world for the Germs that enhances the tension between audience and band in several performance sequences he uses as jumping-off points for personal moments — the self-examination following their horrid first gig in April 1977; a sexual-identity question later that year; a Halloween 1978 perf putting Crash at a crossroads with friends, bandmates and heroin, and a post-Germs show that bores the audience to tears yet alerts Crash to his station in life, friendless save for a lost drunk pal, the camaraderie born of triumph lost.
Quietly yet expertly, Grossman captures the end of the Germs — and it could be any band for that matter — in a parking lot behind a concert venue. Amid the goodbyes, there are different agendas: Smear is tired and wants to get on with the banality of life; Doom has been scarred by fast living; Bolles, however, can’t imagine life without the band. And Crash has no new circle to draw, no second five-year plan, no more fabricated family. And as his bandmates drift away, West paints Crash as single-minded: How do I end this?
“What We Do is Secret” is the work of several people, among them the real Pat Smear (who taught the actors to re-create the Germs’ performances), with great memories — they make sure that the fashions, the club and apartment interiors, along with the postures of the onlookers, feel remarkably dead-on.