by Kathie Smith
The nonchalant title of Charlie Paul’s documentary on legendary illustrator Ralph Steadman, For No Good Reason, is a catchphrase borrowed from Hunter S. Thompson—suggesting that he was mostly doing things for no good reason. Although a purpose may have gotten lost under the din of booze, drugs, and debauchery for Thompson and Steadman, a little perspective on the work of these two men gives the phrase a powerful paradox. Steadman and Thompson’s successes are somewhat inseparable as they paved a road in tandem for Gonzo journalism that began with Scanlan’s Monthly “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” in 1970. As Steadman recalls this first collaboration with Thompson—a random assignment that came out of the blue from Scanlan’s publisher Warren Hinckle III—he realizes that the depravity they were documenting was not only in what they saw around them but also what they saw in the mirror.
Director: Charlie Paul
Producer: Lucy Paul
Cinematographer: Charlie Paul
Music: Ed Harcourt, Sacha Skarbek
Editor: Jody Gee
Cast: Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Gilliam, Richard Grant, Jann Wenner, Hal Willner
Premiere: September 9, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 25, 2014
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
The boozy weekend spent with Thompson sealed Steadman’s fate; he returned to the UK energized by his experiences in the US only to receive a call from Thompson a few months later asking for a dozen drawings for a manuscript titled “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which resulted in some of Steadman’s most famous pieces. Steadman continued to artistically spar with Thompson in their roles as illustrator and writer—taking on other Gonzo missions like the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire for Rolling Stone and the 1980 Honolulu Marathon for Running magazine—but he also fostered an island of notoriety for himself and his bizarre paintings that have a style all their own. For No Good Reason excels at both pulling out Steadman’s timeline and underscoring his political and creative daring.
Johnny Depp, who is friends with Steadman, acts as an informal host to the film, and the camera follows as Depp goes to Steadman’s home and studio for a visit. At first glance, this device (let’s just call it the Depp Device) might seem like a blatant hook for appeal, but his presence adds a distraction to what would otherwise be a fairly rote talking head formula. And Depp mostly keeps silent as Steadman paints, reminisces, and talks about his work, allowing the documentary to seamlessly work through archival footage and supporting interviews. Explaining his relationship with Thompson clearly exposes how multifaceted and powerful their personal and creative partnership was. Steadman says that he sometimes felt like Thompson’s tormented bird Edward (we see footage of Thompson cruelly banging on the birds cage and screaming at it), but he also expresses how much he misses Thompson since his suicide in 2005.
Fortunately, For No Good Reason doesn’t forget about the artwork. Some of the most amazing moments arrive by watching Steadman experiment with splashing and blowing paint as it transforms into one of his unusual concoctions. Depp asks him if he knows how a painting will turn out, and Steadman turns and looks at him and says, “If I knew how it was going to come out, why would I do it?” You feel that the creative sense of discovery fuels Steadman as much today as it did 40 years ago, his admiration for Rembrandt, Picasso, da Vinci and Francis Bacon bubbling as if he were a student. Furthermore, his political outrage, evident in his many of his drawings, remains a fiery force for anyone willing to look. The filmmakers also make good use of Steadman’s illustrations, animating them into the frame and bringing his deformed beings to life.
Paul tells Steadman’s story with a certain amount of ease, infusing it with just the right amount of flair, and it’s easy to imagine For No Good Reason seducing fans and newcomers alike. Despite a minor stumble with a head-scratching array of popular music choices (ranging from Slash to Crystal Castles, Jason Mraz to Low), this documentary does its job so well you barely notice the lack of personal information about Steadman. Likely by design, you leave this 90-minute documentary not really knowing if Steadman is married, has children, or even has much of a life outside of his work. But you probably don’t work with Hunter S. Thompson without learning some very tough lessons about boundaries, and perhaps some of that skill was applied in the making of this documentary. And while more biographical information might have been interesting, Steadman’s personality and youthful engagement with his work is more than enough to satisfy.