You might not have heard of Ralph Steadman, but there’s a good chance you’ve seen some of his work, especially if you’re aware of Hunter S. Thompson. Having collaborated together and essentially forged the Gonzo journalistic movement – which took the American establishment to task during the contentious Vietnam and Nixon administrations – Thompson’s written word and Steadman’s incisive art helped capture the cultural milieu of arguably the most important era of American history. Over 15 years, Charlie Paul has assembled this intimate documentary, a shapeless, often messy but informative examination of the artist’s method and madness.
Johnny Depp – who, of course, essentially played Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – narrates much of the film, for most of what we see centres around a meeting between himself and Steadman. While Depp appears to be drunk and or high for the vast majority of it, the agreeably casual feel compensates mostly for the low energy. Paul smartly keeps changing the format up; animations of Steadman’s works are fantastic throughout, particularly a subversive adoption of his Fear and Loathing illustrations, with Depp cleverly narrating what would be Hunter S. Thompson’s dialogue. In terms of live-action, Paul lenses Steadman’s home beautifully; the slick passes through his work space are especially sublime.
The moments in which Steadman is given the opportunity to either work or talk are the best; one montage which shows him constructing a work from scratch is marvellously informative, and his ruminations on the purpose of art are undeniably thought-provoking. Steadman also keenly notes his influences, which come from unexpected places, namely Rembrandt’s series of self-portraits, demonstrating the effect of ageing. There is, however, a notable shift once Ralph discusses his move to the U.S. and becomes acquainted with Hunter S. Thompson; it ends up being less about Steadman specifically and more his mad adventures alongside Thompson. Unconvincingly, it is argued that Steadman is crazier than Thompson to a measure, but thankfully the film doesn’t linger on this point, moving on to discuss his daring political art, which even Steadman himself amusingly confesses is a tad self-righteous.
What’s more interesting than most of the above is simply the sheer breadth of talent Steadman has worked with – such as Terry Gilliam, William S. Boroughs and Richard E. Grant – though occasionally this fact is overshadowed by the amount of coverage given to Thompson, even if the two do appear to be inextricable from one another. Much like Steadman’s own work, those first splashes of paint appear slapdash and formless, but Paul manages to develop For No Good Reason into something interesting and funny, if more than a little uneven.
Ponderous and lofty but not without its laid-back charms and insights.
This article was first posted on October 11, 2012