Published:Jun 14, 2008
A new documentary about Hunter S Thompson continues to vaunt the
author as a romantic hero. Bollocks, says Bongani Madondo.
Hunter S Thompson better known as "Dr Gonzo" is high : sky high.
I mean, we are speaking of Thompson in present terms, to denote the
enduring memory and myth surrounding the man.
Let's get this fact straight before we dive into a world that
Thompson and his more elegant and wittier predecessor, Mark Twain,
as well Thompson's contemporaries, the "New Journalists" understood
For these chaps the hard drill of reporting was not mere journalistic
practice, no: For them it was a helluva personal, subjective and intimate art.
The New Journalists later to be modified as "literary" or
"narrative" were as crazy and immersed in their "art" as the very
brightest in the expressive and performing arts were.
It is not like New Journalists were, by definition, all great
reporters or writers even. The greatest among them were sublime, yes
but the worst of the bunch were criminally atrocious.
Which brings us to Thompson's essence: To truly appreciate or even
disapprove of him as a writer, you must as a start agree with one
thing. .. the man was a phenomenon. How did he attain it? And why is
he still a phenomenon?
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson is a 2008
documentary that answers this question incisively and offers a
clichéless portrait of the man sans the usual groupie-blind love
definitive of most bio pic directors. Directed by Alex Gibney, the
118-minute documentary is 10 times better than Fear and Loathing in
Vegas, the Johnny Depp feature film based on Thompson's now iconic
story for Rolling Stone magazine. Gibney's offering is also as
sympathetic as it is biting.
Movie hype aside, who was the real Hunter S Thompson?
Initially a rather sedate stringer for a Southern paper, in the '50s
Thompson moved northeast to Pennsylvania and, later, to New York, to
work for several small publications as a sports writer.
His real character, however, which not only matched his stories but
shaped the tone of his narratives, started shaping up on the West
Coast in Haight-Ashbury, 'Frisco's hippie haven. It was, in fact,
here his fame erupted. Things did not "happen" for Thompson: they erupted.
Upon arriving in Haight-Ashbury in the mid-'60s, Thompson joined a
California- based band of bikers, Hell's Angels, to get an intimate
view of what made 'em tick.
He spent a year with them, witnessing some of the most brutal aspects
of bike-culture his Hell's Angels gang-raped, looted and were a law
unto themselves. This time left him bruised (he was eventually
severely ruffled up by his subject matter), but not battered enough
to give up working on what would be his literary breakthrough
Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.
Vivid, volatile and cinematic, the book turned him into an instant
star. This was circa 1966 and, by now some kind of a rock star in his
own write, Thompson knew every true rock star had to have that one
record, that one song that would determine whether their name would
be forever etched in history or not. Enter Thompson's 1972 book,
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Despatched to the gambling city to cover a motorcycle race, he spent
his time drugging, drinking and having a crazy-ass time with
Chicano-movement activist, Oscar Zeta Acosta. During this heady trip
Thompson was as mad and maddening as only Thompson could be.
It would be factually inaccurate to suggest that he was purely driven
by his personal demons and not a love for literature and journalism.
As San Juan Star editor William Kennedy tells it in Gonzo: The Life
of Hunter S Thompson (2007) a book put together by Rolling Stone's
iconic editor, Jann Wenner Thompson had a healthy respect for
literature. His early heroes were fiction writers who used
journalistic methodology in their fiction and vice versa: writers
such as Norman Mailer, JD Salinger, and the duo who left a lasting
impression on him: Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.
What came out of it though was a rollicking, almost fictitious style
of hardened reportage that had the spirited delivery of a long jazz
solo. Pure fire. Published by Rolling Stone, Fear and Loathing turned
the magazine and Thompson into American counter-culture icons forever.
And it inspired whole generations of scribes to mimic his style
"Gonzo" journalism. (" Gonzo" is a Cajun slang term that basically
Back to the flick. Told mainly through flashback monologues by
Thompson himself, as well as those who had intimate relations with
him people like ex-wife Sondi Wright; Wenner; Thompson's close
friend Johnny Depp the Gibney documentary works powerfully and has
the sense of a conversation with your favourite rascal.
Gibney relays Thompson's stories, such as the Hell's Angels episode,
his obsession with guns and all things macho with touching
simplicity: there's no interpretation, no analysis, no smart-boy
edits, no. It's intimate and warm and works well in contrast to the
innate bombast of the film's subject.
Gonzo is a road film one of the most beautiful moments is an aerial
shot of Thompson in his signature aviator goggles, working a moody
and show-offy bike into the sunset.
Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries this ain't. It tells us something
we've always suspected but never cared to deal with. In essence,
reporting, even to the most hardened war hacks, is a task enjoyed to
the full by the most reckless of romantics.
The documentary also suggests that New Journalism not "new"
anymore, some 40 years later was, at core, another stylistic
variation of the old art of travel writing and that its proponents
were modern explorers.
Yet, I still don't understand what the F the whole Hunter S Thompson
racket was all about. Breaking barriers? By caricaturing his own
radical programme and losing the sympathy of those who could have
been drawn to his cause ?
Look, I'm possibly dof, but yo, I have my reservations about his
worth as an artist and a writer.
Thompson might have been great at one point, but he was too stoned;
too much about the action that centred around him. To him it was just
a stage to service his persona. Why he didn't become an actor buggers me.
Thompson was simply a two pony- trickster with just two stories in
him: Hell's Angels and Fear and Loathing. Everything else went south
in matters of taste and skill. In a way, he was a product of his time
the '60s and what his peer Tom Wolfe labelled the "me-me" decade.
Let's assume I'm totally out of depth here, and give the Hunter S
Thompson myth the benefit of the doubt. Still, if he were that great
a writer, why could he not manage a comeback, in all of 30 years, to
produce another mind-altering magazine series or even a book? I do
not buy the theory that narcotics alone slowed his production down.
But Hunter S Thompson, who commited suicide at the age of 67 in Woody
Creek in 2005, was, after all, a rock star. Which is why there will
surely be a legion of studies and documentaries on his life not so
on his art.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson opens as part of the
Encounters Film Festival on June 20 at Nu Metro, Hyde Park and on
July 7 at Nu Metro, V&A Waterfront. To see the trailer visit