Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film
December 5th, 2006
One of the very few regrets I have in life is that I never got the chance to meet Hunter S. Thompson, the legendary father of Gonzo Journalism who changed the way millions of people read and wrote, myself included. Tom Thurman's documentary about the good doctor, which begins airing on the Starz movie cable network December 12, is probably the closest any of us who admired the man from afar will ever get to the confines of Woody Creek and the maddening genius who ruled over it.
Many of the anecdotes served up by Thompson’s friends are already well known to avid readers of his work, as there was rarely any story he told that wasn’t worth making himself the lead in. What makes "Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S Thompson on Film" so worthwhile is to hear these stories from other points of view, from his childhood friends in Louisville to his comrades later in life including Johnny Depp and Bill Murray, who, being the two men who have played Thompson on celluloid, not so incidentally get their fair share of screen time. After all, how often are you going to get either man, both notoriously reclusive men who don't do all that much press, to spend so much time speaking about much of anything publicly? Both Depp and Murray clearly loved the time they had with Thompson, as seemingly did most everyone else whose path crossed with him, including Sean Penn, John Cusack, Gary Busey, former Senators Gary Hart and George McGovern and the recently departed Ed Bradley.
Naturally, you can’t have a worthy documentary about Hunter S. Thompson without Ralph Steadman, Thompson’s partner in crime in a number of adventures, who not only shares Thompson's desire to have his wake exactly as he wanted (we also get to see a few scant seconds of the much-publicized affair) but get to see the first drawings for the Gonzo Memorial that Steadman created per the Doctor’s specifications more than thirty years ago. (Depp was the main instigator in getting the Memorial built to order.)
Thompson was one of a kind, and several of his contemporaries chime in to express this sentiment (Tom Wolfe not only compares Thompson to Mark Twain but nominates him as the Twentieth Century's most important comic writer). As the vast majority of viewers of this film will be aficionados of the author, some fawning hero worship is to be expected. But most of the time is spent with those who truly loved the man, including his wives and son. (About the only thing that is missing from the film is Garry Trudeau, whose Doonesbury character Duke was modeled after Thompson's alter ego Raoul Duke, and whose four panel "tribute" to Thompson's passing was the most poignant and spot-on testament to the man.)
The mark of a good documentary is that it leaves you wanting more. Thurman, who previously made documentaries about John Ford, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates and Sam Peckinpah, knows how to keep the narrative flowing with ease. Some of the footage has been seen in previous documentaries about the man, but much is new material to fans, who will cherish every moment. The man lived life on his own terms, died when he felt it was the right time to go and left a lasting impression on the world and the way we view the blurred lines between fiction and journalism, even if many he indirectly influenced have never read a single word he wrote.
Buy this ticket. Take this crazy, wild ride. Like the best roller coasters, you may find you want to ride it again and again.
Visit YouTube to watch several clips from the documentary. I especially recommend the "How to Interview Gary Busey" clip.
My rating: A