For No Good Reason

For No Good Reason

***

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

So you don't know Ralph Steadman by name? Well, think back to those striking, hallucinatory, and very splattery illustrations that accompanied the now iconic works of gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson. His work has graced the covers and interiors of many well known publications during his career, including Punch, Private Eye, The New York Times and Rolling Stone. He is also a prolific book illustrator, working on editions of Alice In Wonderland, Treasure Island and Animal Farm whilst also penning a book or two himself. His work appears in newspapers too - he illustrated Will Self's column in The Independent, for example. Much of his work draws from a long held and unashamedly anti-war and anti-authority ideology, and is well known for its vivid shapes and colours, and a morbid and satirical edge.

This documentary is framed around a visit to Steadman's large country house in Kent by actor Johnny Depp - who has played Steadman's old collaborator/tormentor Hunter S. Thompson in two films to date (Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and The Rum Diaries). Whilst Steadman doodles, draws, paints and ponders in Depp's company, the documentary branches off at intervals into both archive footage and Steadman-esque animated sequences that trace the quiet yet surprisingly fearless (you'd have to be to repeatedly work with Thompson) the artist's rise from his birth in 1936 in Cheshire, to his clashes with authority at school, and on to his seat of the pants escapades with Hunter S. Thompson in the chaos and hedonism of 1970s USA and beyond.

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Thompson and the crazy stories of what the pair got up to in the USA are an obvious highlight, including the uncountable booze filled nights (and days) that were the backdrop to madcap trips to the Kentucky Derby and Kinshasa, amongst others. It seems like such an odd pairing, the quiet, retiring Steadman and the full steam ahead Thompson, but Steadman and the combustible gonzo legend clearly found their own strange ways to work productively together even though they were chalk and the cheese personified, and Steadman's touching fondness for his now departed friend comes through clearly. Steadman's willingness to tag along with Thompson is perhaps best seen as an early sign of the steel and fiery social conscience that still hides behind the soft spoken facade, a rage at injustice and inbuilt reaction against authority which fuelled and still fuels so much of his satirical and polemical work.

The documentary manages to go beyond the obviously giant figure of Thompson to glance over some of Steadman's other achievements, including his relationship with William S Burroughs, smaller projects like his illustrations for a declaration of human rights printing, his antiwar illustrations during the Vietnam era, and a very interesting look at some of the work he wrote as well as illustrating himself, including a biography of Leonardo da Vinci.

As expected, there are a few talking heads to bring some context, praise and a few stories- Richard E Grant, Terry Gilliam and Rolling Stone editor Jan Wenner are amongst the contemporary contributors.

Steadman's work has been well documented and published over the years (in part by himself, Steadman for example has stop-frame captured much of his work as it progresses on the canvas), so director Charlie Paul has plenty of arresting paintings, drawings, and doodles to choose from across all types of media, having spent the last 15 years assembling the material. It's a visual treat for the eyes for sure, and no matter who you are, there's a fair chance that at least some of Steadman's art will ring a bell (he's even illustrated Oddbins catalogues). In fact, given that Steadman's art and the sequences of him actually illustrating are the real draw, it feels a little superfluous to have Johnny Depp and various animations taking up so much screen time, and for the film to be built around a visit to his house. The filmmakers don't really seek to challenge Steadman on his views or go into too much detail about certain aspects of his life like his family. It's more a warm tribute than anything else, but the artwork speaks for itself.

Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2012
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The life and art of Ralph Steadman.
Amazon link

Director: Charlie Paul

Starring: Johnny Depp, Terry Gilliam, Patrick Godfrey, Richard E. Grant, Ralph Steadman, Hunter S. Thompson, Jann Wenner

Year: 2012

Runtime: 89 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, US

Festivals:

London 2012

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