Disclaimer; halfway into "What We Do Is Secret" - Rodger Grossman's 2007 biopic of LA punk band The Germs - I had to use the john something fierce, so this review reflects a viewing gap. It is possible, however unlikely, that the five minutes I missed covered the vast range of subjects otherwise conspicuously lacking. Perhaps this segment addressed singer Darby Crash posing with a fake girlfriend in "The Decline Of Western Civilization" - Penelope Spheeris's flawless and starkly contrasting 1981 documentary of the early Los Angeles punk scene - supposedly to avoid gay-bashing by fellow band Fear. Or maybe the unseen segment examined the LA scene's descent into jock-fueled megabrawls. Perhaps there was time to examine the period's casual racism, or the casual scientology of Crash and his buddies. I wasn't present. It would be presumptuous of me to assume otherwise.
When I did return to my seat, I discovered that the movie had taken a reckless new turn. A present day rock band ("The Bronx", said the credits) portrayed 1980 Black Flag in unapologetically 21st century garb and presentation; they roared and stomp-danced and sported Hot Topic gear and looked and sounded like every other post nu-metal KROQ flim-flam that plays over the credits of a 2008 horror flick. It seemed a bold attempt to jumpstart a lost cause - a "game changer" in this season's lingo - by reconfiguring the entire shitty premise midstream. For a few wonderful moments, I held out hope for a meatier, weirder, funnier, more postmoderny movie to emerge triumphant from the first hour. Would it have been too much to ask for the late-inning additions of Kevin James as Darby Crash, Martin Lawrence as both Pat Smear and Rodney Bingenheimer, and an award-winning cameo by Abigail Breslin as Penelope Spheeris?
It would. Nothing exciting actually transpired, and the movie puttered and sputtered and eventually limped to its hero's inevitable suicide. It's hard to recall any other (non-sequel) film so deeply overshadowed by another film. Shots and events from "Decline" were referenced with all the vigor of an "America's Most Wanted" reenactment. It was bad, but not funny bad. Local band The Mae-Shi played The Screamers, and they seemed unhappy. So did many of the extras.
To be fair, no movie could survive a star like Shane West, better known as one of the interchangeable young doctors on TV's "E.R.". West filtered out the hapless, flabby, blotto pathos of "Decline's" Darby - in other words, all the interesting bits - and what we were left with was a sort of wise-alecky street poet. This alt-universe Germs frontman dropped preposterous thought bombs to his ecstatic buddies, who gushed lines like, "Darby, these lyrics are genius!" In trying to recast Crash as a rock prophet in the Jim Morrison mold, the filmmakers ignored the obvious; The Germs weren't that interesting a band. Without the allure of suicide, their memory would today flicker dimly alongside China White and The Urinals. At one point there was a brief glimpse of the actual Darby Crash, leering out from his iconic Slash Magazine cover photo, and the cognitive dissonance gave the movie an unwelcome jolt (again, to be fair, there was a moment of inverse but equal disconnect in HBO's recent "John Adams", which reworked the famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington in the lumpy likeness of David Morse, better known as one of the interchangeable young doctors on TV's "St. Elsewhere").
Last year I'd corresponded briefly with the film's producers, hoping to catch an advance screening for an article I was writing on the year's musical biopic films. The screening never materialized, and the article eventually ran in the OC Weekly without their movie. Darby Crash would have indeed fit nicely with the year's theme of young death: Ian Curtis (suicide), Hector Lavoe (AIDS), Edith Piaf (suicide by booze and crummy men), and Bob Dylan (whom many purists still wish had bought it in his '66 motorcycle crash) all received their due from 2007 Hollywood. (Obviously, I'm glad now the screening didn't work out; having incurred more than enough bad times from zine days over antagonistic record reviews, I don't feel any need to get off on a similar foot with movie producers).
It's kind of sad watching a bad movie about a historical figure who yearned for mass fame. It's sadder to see this movie in the only theater it played in anywhere, on account of the bad movie never received national distribution and instead runs one theater at a time throughout L.A. county. This situation can still be corrected. Shane West and the surviving Germs have reunited and are playing shows again. If that's not a great hook for a fictionalized making-of-What-We-Do-Is-Secret type drama, I really don't know what is. Jeremy Irons can star as the ghost of Darby. Start writing your congressmen. Make it happen.