A Long, Strange Trip
New Documentary, Gonzo, tells the story of Hunter S. Thompson
BY CHARLIE THOMASON
“When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
–The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
In recalling the strange and fantastic existence of
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, one must attempt to
navigate between fact and legend—the man and
the Gonzo, and so forth. This revolutionary discourse eventually
became the basis of the good Doctor’s journalistic
method and reputation. The Louisville-native would so
envelope himself in his story or subject that readers often
failed to recognize the difference between Thompson’s version
of reality, and their own. Far more challenging was the
attempt to then document Thompson’s life and work (following
his unfortunate suicide three years ago). Fresh off
the success of his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, filmmaker
Alex Gibney immediately dove into the history and
legend of Dr. Thompson. Sundance joyously received the
resulting biopic—entitled Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr.
Hunter S. Thompson—like a glass of fine Kentucky bourbon.
As Gibney’s film now slowly trickles into theatres across
the country, audiences have finally learned to taste the
overwhelming importance of the legend.
Unfortunately, the documentary lightly glosses over
some of the less celebrity-filled facts. For example, Hunter
Stockton Thompson grew up, with his two brothers, in an
older area of the Louisville Highlands known as the
Cherokee Triangle. After World War II, many families moved
away from older suburbs like this. When Hunter’s father
died in 1952, the three boys chose to stick around the
Highlands a while longer. Although he attended both
Atherton and Male High School, this part of Thompson’s life
appears in Gibney’s film only to spotlight the birth of
Thompson’s criminal record. After spending about a month
in the Jefferson County Jail (which has now been converted
into a Law Library) on accessory to robbery charges,
Thompson joined the Air Force and left Kentucky.
For the purposes of the Gonzo documentary, Hunter’s
legend begins here.
Gibney’s documentary suggests that the key to truly
understanding the Father of Gonzo Journalism
must emerge from a parade of contradictions. Both
Gonzo and last year’s Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride effectively
portray him as a master of his own destiny (mostly to shed a
more positive light on his suicide).
Following the Air Force, Thompson then unexpectedly
spent about a year thundering around with Hell’s Angels—
arguably the most lawless organization around at the time.
What better way to then follow a stint like that than by running
Finally, you top that off with the Doctor’s Fear and Loathing
rampage and you have yourself a very complicated individual.
While Buy the Ticket spent far more time with this idea, it
becomes fairly clear with any review of Thompson’s life story.
Gonzo’s thesis is that Thompson refused to live by a set
of basic expectations or established ethics—he called himself
a “freak” and was proud of it.
In Gonzo, Thompson’s long-time friend and illustrator
Ralph Steadman explains that, for the writer, life was always
“victory or game-over.”
Steadman met Thompson when the renegade journalist
hired him to help cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby.
As well as being the real birth date of Gonzo Journalism,
Thompson and Steadman’s piece, The Kentucky Derby is
Decadent and Depraved, marks the documentary’s opening
discussion of psychedelic drug usage. The film makes an
effort to show not only its effects on Thompson’s writing
style, but on Steadman’s illustrations, as well.
In fact, one of the most admirable elements of
Gibney’s film concerns the outstanding influence of
Steadman’s illustrations on the eventual theory and perception
of Gonzo Journalism. The translation of
Thompson’s work onto the Hollywood screen relied heavily
on Steadman’s ink work, especially in the case of Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas. There is a great clip in Gonzo of
Thompson on the phone with a prospective Vegas director
who wants to include some animated sequences. The
Doctor rips the poor boy to shreds, clarifying that he will
tolerate no perversion of such an integral facet of the original
work. Steadman’s art perfectly reaffirms the visual
style already suggested by Thompson’s writing.
Some critics have condemned Gonzo’s rather excessive
amount of re-enactment scenes. Although they may, at
times, make the film seem a bit “cheap” or “forced,” the
average viewer may very well not even notice them among
the high volume of legitimate archival footage.
Furthermore, the after-effects applied to the re-enactments,
while designed to help match the rough quality of the real
clips, help establish a definitive, overall look for the documentary.
The aged, rustic visual style engages the viewer,
as actor Johnny Depp fluidly narrates with authentic
quotes from Thompson’s work. This directly contrasts with
the roughness and force of Nick Nolte’s narration in Buy
the Ticket. (Despite the insightful script by Kentucky native
Thomas Marksbury, Nick Nolte’s delivery was accurately
described in The New York Times as, “less like an outlaw
than a slightly slow student who doesn’t understand the
words he is reading.”) While waving around a .44 magnum
in Gonzo, Johnny Depp proves beyond all doubt his uncanny
ability to enliven the late Doctor’s words.
The only other thing that can be said against Alex
Gibney’s outstanding documentary is his occasional lack
While Buy the Ticket stays very much focused on
Thompson as a writer and an individual, Gonzo relies heavily
on the events surrounding his life. In detailing
Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 election, Gonzo becomes
painfully sidetracked by an excess of political history
(Richard Nixon, George McGovern, et al.). Subsequently, the
film mires down in a lengthy segment that involves former
President Jimmy Carter far more than the Gonzo Journalist
who was so affected by him.
Nevertheless, this disproportionate tangent does yield
a successful climax in its eventual comparison to present
day political conflicts. Perhaps, the good Doctor foresaw
our current situation and feared for the future of peace, liberty,
and that never-ending source of inspiration called the
If Gonzo Journalism means becoming a part of your
own story, then perhaps Thompson felt the contemporary
American story was one his legend had already exhausted
and endured. Either way, Gonzo tells Thompson’s story as
the Doctor hopefully meant for it to be: both the facts and
the legend. ■
Gonzo: the Life and Times of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson opens
Friday, August 22nd, at the Kentucky Theatre.
Charles L. Thomason is a Fine Arts graduate from the
University of Kentucky currently working on his Master’s degree
at DePaul University. More of his writing can be found at