Saturday, September 27, 2008

Rodger Grossman's WHAT WE DO IS SECRET

Going into the 21st century, the phrase 'punk is dead' is probably as ubiquitous as 'God is dead.' Punk certainly hasn't had to stand the test of time that God has, but both statements would incite equally fiery debates, if the right people were included. But in order to confirm or debunk punk's death, you would first have to define punk—a road I am not about to go down due to the fact that I was only a mere 10 years old when Darby Crash of The Germs ended his five year plan. Permanently.

Darby Crash and The Germs are the fictionalized focus of Rodger Grossman's long time coming biopic What We Do Is Secret. The Germs are largely credited for being at the forefront of LA's punk scene in the late 70s, lead by the young Jan Paul Breahm who later became Bobby Pyn and then Darby Crash. What We Do Is Secret is filmed as a documentary, with testimonials from the band about Darby, interspersed with live performances and, of course, a little personal speculation. The film starts with the inception of the band (first named Sophistifuck & The Revlon Spam Queens) between Breahm and friend Georg Ruthenberg (guitarist now known as Pat Smear) and ends with Darby's overdose in 1980. Covering shows and events and people that are largely documented, it is a relatively straightforward memoir of the band and Darby.

Unfortunately, the judgement on any biography is largely going to rely on what the individual viewer brings to the film. I didn't bring too much to the film other than my own vested interest in music, punk or otherwise. That being said, I was unimpressed by the films willingness to fall in line with the stereotypical downfall of the tortured rock genius. The film shows a young (like, 12-years-old young) Darby reading "Will to Power" and props him up a little too much on the prophet pedestal. There is no doubt in my mind that Darby was very smart, but his lapse of judgement lead him down a road that made him a very unhappy man. Much like last year's Control, about Ian Curtis and Joy Division, What We Do Is Secret left me feeling unmoved and empty and slightly duped.

What We Do Is Secret was hardly a small project for Rodger Grossman who approached the living band members 15 years ago about doing the film. While Grossman is not the die-hard Germs fan that you might expect, the film and the band became an obsession that took over his life. He worked closely with the remaining members of the band while making the film. As a result, the 'interviews' have an air of authentic and believability, but one has to ask the question of why not just interview Smear, Doom and drummer Don Bolles? (Although Bolles is a little goofy these days.) And why not line up the bands who The Germs influenced? Maybe even dig up a fan who went to one of the shows?

These are selfish questions, because this would be the film that I would be more interested in. Grossman, however, was more interested in traveling back in time to this little corner of subculture and recreate, as best as he could, a scene that has become iconic, if not mythic. Fans will revel in Shane West's portrayal of Darby Crash (West even toured with the surviving members of The Germs as Shane Wreck) and in the visceral reenactments of live shows, but unfortunately, What We Do Is Secret contributes nothing new to the myth. As a matter of fact, it probably dumbs it down a little bit. You'll find much better material in the standout documentaries The Decline of the Western Civilization (1981) and American Hardcore (2006) .

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