So larger-than-life that he eventually felt overshadowed by his own mythos, legendary journo Hunter S. Thompson gets definitive docu treatment in “Gonzo.” Alex Gibney’s film draws on a rich array of archival interviews, homemovies, signs-of-the-times clips and celebrity reminiscences to chart the dizzying arc of a man who both chronicled and personified edgier aspects of the American 1960s and ’70s. Subject’s lingering appeal to both old fans and new should make this a viable specialty release in all formats, starting with Magnolia’s theatrical release.
Fast-paced, colorful assembly starts with commentators remarking on Thompson’s legacy (even foe Sonny Barger of Hell’s Angels grudgingly calls him “a jerk, but a very good writer”) and lamenting the long creative decline after his peak years. Pic then backtracks to touch on his Kentucky upbringing before an appearance in full biker drag on gameshow “To Tell the Truth” heralded his first professional triumph: “Hell’s Angels,” an exercise in participatory journalism that resulted from his hanging out with the famed outlaws for a year — though ultimately, they were not pleased with his portrait.
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The book’s success made him a minor celebrity, but the ambitious author hungered for greater fame. Aligning himself with Rolling Stone magazine, he chronicled his own Freak Power Party run for sheriff in Aspen, Colo. (he lost, to residents’ enormous relief), then did a piece about the “decadent and depraved” Kentucky Derby that’s pinpointed here as the birth of “gonzo” journalism — the chemically fueled, sometimes fictionalized, highly first-person style that made Thompson a counterculture hero. His classic “Fear and Loathing” tomes confounded all traditional rules of reporting, yet remain admired for grasping the gist of American politics and life better than many sober, evenhanded treatments.
Even as his fame skyrocketed, Thompson grew disillusioned and unreliable. Deeply patriotic, he was appalled by the Nixon administration, depressed by McGovern’s failed White House bid, briefly enthused by Carter. (Both of the latter are gracious interviewees here.) Titanic consumption of drugs and alcohol, paranoia, a habit of shooting firearms (often under the influence), and omnipresent groupies and hangers-on all made his productivity increasingly erratic. Tired and alarmed by this circus-y lifestyle, first wife Sondi Wright finally left, taking their son with her.
Thompson’s last quarter-century, ending with a planned 2005 suicide at age 67, are skimmed past here. The excesses expected of him became more defining than the writing itself (though his musings on 9/11 were strikingly, eerily prescient). But the giddy extravagance of his memorials — remains cannon-shot into space, a huge sculpture erected on his Colorado property — end docu on an upbeat note.
Subject’s career being inextricably tied to two extremely entertaining U.S. decades, “Gonzo” has a wealth of delightful archival footage to draw on, both directly involving Thompson and evoking the cultural landscape around him. Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) deploys a lively range of techniques, from onscreen text to split-screen, in ace production package. Soundtrack choices (Stones, Dylan, “American Pie,” etc.) tend to be a bit obvious, though mid-’70s disco hitmakers Hot Chocolate are felicitously utilized at one point.
Running a wide gamut from relatives to close collaborators (Ralph Steadman, Jann Wenner) to historied politicos, the interviewees offer first-rate insight. Pal Johnny Depp reads excerpts from Thompson’s works and is also glimpsed in several excerpts from Terry Gilliam’s film of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Mercifully, there’s just one scene from 1980 dud “Where the Buffalo Roam,” which starred Bill Murray as the man himself.