In Wayne Ewing’s rollicking docu “Breakfast With Hunter,” elder statesman of American counter-culturalism and self-styled “champion of fun” Hunter S. Thompson finally gets what he deserves — a movie that captures the essence of his jazzy pop journalism while casting a vaguely wearisome eye on the cult of celebrity. Other pics — notably “Where the Buffalo Roam” (1980) and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998) — tried to translate Thompson’s “gonzo” writings and lifestyle to the screen, but never found the right balance between comic absurdity and the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. But “Breakfast,” shot over most of the 1990s with Ewing (an Emmy-nominated television documentarian) given intimate access, succeeds by giving auds the man himself, undiluted, 200 proof. After world premiere at Cinevegas, pic looks to have a lively future as a fest and specialized theatrical item, given the continued interest in Thompson and the starry cast of admirers on display here.
Born in Louisville, Ky., Thompson made a name for himself in the 1960s writing about the likes of the Kentucky Derby, the Hell’s Angels and the Vietnam War in the pages of The Nation, Scanlan’s Monthly and, most significantly, Rolling Stone. It was there, with the generous (and very patient) backing of Jann Wenner, that Thompson would publish his definitive “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which re-imagined a road trip to Vegas as a journey through the decaying landscape of the American dream, as well as the subsequent “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail,” which documented George McGovern’s failed presidential bid against Richard Nixon.
“Vegas,” which cemented Thompson’s reputation as America’s liquor-and-acid-drenched nonconformist laureate, was electrifying, and so was Thompson, holing himself up in a “heavily fortified” Aspen compound and regularly entertaining himself (or, at least, the media) with such antics as burning a Christmas tree in his fireplace and firing a loaded gun at his own typewriter.
With his trademark visor hat, oversize sunglasses and bottle of Chivas Regal, Thompson became an icon of “cool,” arguably less to his own generation than to the subsequent ones that have marveled that America was once such a raucous, unsteady, socially-conscious place. In “Breakfast With Hunter,” the author is regularly glimpsed among a coterie of admirers — actors Johnny Depp and John Cusack, mobs of fans at book signings — half his own age or younger (an exception to this generational crossover being his appearance at a birthday party for McGovern in Washington D.C.)
Pic documents Thompson’s 1995 legal battle against the Aspen police who, ultimately, had insufficient evidence to arrest him on a DUI charge. Those who don’t already admire Thompson’s tireless dedication to upending the cultural “status quo” likely will come away from “Breakfast” with such an appreciation.
Ewing approaches the film as a verite immersion into Thompson’s world, and he succeeds at this with considerable skill; he’s very good at fading into the background so as not to interfere with what’s happening on screen. In one truly remarkable scene,director Alex Cox (who was originally going to helm “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”) and his co-screenwriter Todd Davies pay a visit to Thompson in Aspen to discuss the progress of the “Fear and Loathing” screenplay. They find themselves the target of a vitriolic rant by the author, who objects to the use in their script of scenes inspired by the cartoon imagery of longtime Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman. (Thompson would subsequently instigate Cox’s firing from the movie.) It’s an awkward, voyeuristic moment — the sort of thing where the viewer expects the participants to demand the cameras stop rolling — except that everyone seems to have forgotten the cameras are there.
That’s not unusual for Thompson, who’s always “on,” as though the entire world were waiting to see what outrageous stunt he’ll pull next. It’s easy, in fact, to see Thompson as the uncredited influence behind the creation of the “Jackass” television series — something of which Ewing is keenly aware. Ewing never tries to overly criticize Thompson for this, but he can’t help occasionally cringing at the way Thompson’s public, ageless-frat-boy persona has increasingly threatened to dwarf his status as a lion of contemporary American reporting. As Thompson himself once summed up: “I’m afraid I’ve become addicted to my own adrenaline.”