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A poison-pen Picasso with a genius for grotesque caricature and savage social satire, Ralph Steadman is best known for his multiple collaborations with the late Hunter S. Thompson, most notably his illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Now 76, Steadman looks back over his half-century career in this reverential and sumptuously shot documentary from the married producer-director team of Lucy and Charlie Paul, which has just premiered at the London Film Festival.
Fifteen years in the making, For No Good Reason comes loaded with visual swagger and celebrity fans including co-star Johnny Depp, Terry Gilliam and Richard E. Grant – plus, in archive footage, William S. Burroughs and Thompson himself. The story is rich in juicy anecdotes and epochal events, even if the man behind these striking images remains a little too elusive throughout. All the same, the Depp’s star power and Thompson’s evergreen cult appeal should ensure modest theatrical business in most markets, followed by slots on highbrow TV documentary channels.
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The film is structured around a long filmed interview hosted by Depp, a friend of both Steadman and Thompson, during a visit to the artist’s studio in his grand mansion in the English countryside. Steadman talks Depp through his creative methods, shot in loving close-up, accompanied by running commentary on his career and worldview. Punctuated with animated sequences, starry cameos, archive footage and artfully assembled split-screen collages, the film scores highly as an immersive and engaging visual experience, beautifully shot and fluidly edited.
But while it is strong on style, For No Good Reason falls down on substance. Steadman repeatedly stresses his lifelong desire to “change the world” with his protest-driven art, but never fleshes out this fuzzy statement with any political or psychological context. While his pictures seethe with socially engaged rage, the artist himself can only muster a vaguely adolescent distaste for war, injustice and bullying authority figures.
This apparent refusal to explain or examine himself is not helped by the film-makers. In one bizarre scene, Steadman reads from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – one of his illustration projects –while the director drowns out his words with music. Indeed, a highly intrusive soundtrack is the film’s biggest stylistic flaw, elbowing out insight and detail with superfluous indie-rock that has no bearing on the subject.
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At no point does the chain-smoking Depp graduate from indulgent fanboy to journalistic inquisitor. Hence we learn nothing of Steadman’s family roots or class background, his education, his depressive personality, or any formative events in his life. His wife and children are fleetingly glimpsed background figures, never named or even acknowledged. For No Good Reason is highly unusual among bio-docs in containing almost no biographical detail.
The film-makers are equally selective about Steadman’s huge body of work. His graphic biography of Leonardo Da Vinci is discussed, but not his similar volume on Sigmund Freud. We see his illustrations for Richard E. Grant’s movie memoir, but very few of his designs for more literary novels, album sleeves or commercial advertising posters.
Inevitably, the meat of the film is Steadman’s long, fertile but tempestuous working relationship with Thompson – even the title is a quote from the notorious godfather of “gonzo” journalism. The two first collaborated in 1970, the Englishman’s gross-out caricatures proving a happy match for the famously intoxicated writer’s superheated protest-punk prose. These old sparring partners appear together in a handful of archive clips, and some familiar anecdotes about their drug-crazed globe-trotting antics are dutifully rolled out again.
But their friendship clearly remained fractious right up to Thompson’s suicide in 2005. In shaky self-shot video footage of their final boozy meeting, the artist appears to berate the author for building a career on his talent. Not an edifying exchange, but Steadman deserves kudos for allowing its inclusion in this visually impressive but ultimately unrevealing documentary.
Venue: LFF screening, October 13
Production Company: Itch Film
Producer: Lucy Paul
Cast: Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Terry Gilliam, Richard E. Grant, Jann Wenner
Director: Charlie Paul
Cinematography: Charlie Paul
Editor: Joby Gee
Music: Sacha Skarbek
Sales company: Itch Film
Rating TBC, 89 minutes
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