Celebrity documentaries are a tricky beast to make. After all, they are essentially hero-worship as a genre and can have a fairly limited potential if the subject fails to live up to expectations. So, there was a bit of trepidation to be found around the Toronto International Film Festival’s new documentary For No Good Reason, which dives into the life and times of illustrator Ralph Steadman. If you’re not familiar with the name, he’s the man who made the twisted heavy ink cartoons for Hunter S. Thompson and one of the few people alive capable of crafting work that can live up to Thompson’s brand of literary madness. There’s little known about the man behind the inkblots though. So if nothing else, Charlie Paul’s years-in-the-making docs dips into uncharted terrain. Hit the jump to see if the film answers any or all of the lingering questions about Ralph Steadman.
The biggest concern any filmmaker faces when making a film about a previously silent artist is whether or not the subject of the doc would actually have anything to say. Thankfully, Ralph Steadman proves to be a humble, gregarious, and open interview subject. The artist happily walks the audience through his entire career and there are plenty of stories to tell. After starting as a newspaper cartoonist in Britain, Steadman hoped onto a plane early to America and was quickly assigned to illustrate an article Hunter S. Thompson was assigned to write on the Kentucky Derby. The artist and writer got along instantly. Steadman could match Thompson drink for drink and drug for drug, which was an ideal introduction. But more importantly, he shared the gonzo journalist’s passion for extreme living, his warped view of humanity, and his willingness to become part of the story. He also had a distinct, scratchy, and vicious cartoon style that instantly felt like a necessary component of Thompson’s work.
Their collaboration continued for years, most famously in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas where Steadman’s natural surrealism lent itself to drawings of drug hallucinations. They became close friends and sparring partners, which is most amusingly shown in the film through an old answering machine message Hunter left for Ralph that’s a string of almost unintelligible vulgarity that somehow comes off as friendly. All this material is intriguing, but is also undeniably the most widely known of any element of Steadman’s life. Where things get really interesting are when the film departs from Thompson. Steadman delves into some of his lesser known works like a series of Polaroid portraits he made in the 90s. He would drawn on the photos while they developed and as a result the images came out twisted and distorted to look like life as drawn by Steadman in some wonderful work. There was also a book project Steadman took on in which he lived his life as Leonard Da Vinci for a year in order to better understand the artist, which included everything from remaking Da Vinci’s most famous works to building one of the Renaissance man’s early flying machines. Perhaps best of all, Steadman even gives the audience a lesson in proper inkblotting and it’s undeniably fascinating to see the techniques behind his artistic madness.
The film is hosted by Johnny Depp who also conducts most of the interviews with Steadman. At first that feels like a publicity stunt, but it eventually becomes clear that they are genuine friends and Depp probably got far more candid material out of the artist than would have been possible otherwise. As the film wears on and Steadman runs out of anecdotes to tell or techniques to share, he starts to open up about his neurosis, beliefs, and feelings. He emerges as a fascinating, kind, and complex person, not just Hunter S. Thompson’s most talented drinking buddy. These sorts of films rarely end up feeling so openly candid and it turns out to be a very sweet and insightful doc by the time the credits roll.
As you’d imagine, the film never exactly stretches beyond being a profile piece. It’s not something that desperately needs to be seen in theaters and will inevitably find most of it’s audience through streaming video or DVD. It’s a film for fans that let’s them get close to their idol and there’s nothing wrong with that, it just pigeon holes the potential of For No Good Reason in a predictable way. On the plus side, by working with a visual artist who offers plenty of work for montages as well as a visual aesthetic to be mined in the editing room, director Charlie Paul has more than enough ways to make the film visually appealing and even cinematic. It’s a documentary with limited potential that at least lives up to that and will give the target audience exactly what they crave. I suppose you couldn’t really ask for anything more out the project. The doc does what it’s supposed to do and there’s nothing wrong with that when it works this well. Just don’t expect anything more than what’s promised on the packet.
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