The world certainly isn’t wanting for hagiographies of Seventies punk-rock trailblazers, but rarely has one felt as inauthentic as Rodger Grossman’s feature debut, What We Do Is Secret. Grossman short-changes his subject by framing the tragic, brief musical career and suicide of the Germs’ front man Darby Crash (ne Paul Beahm) as a by-the-book rise-and-fall narrative. Even if the film pretends to problematize his image (as hesitant political proselytizer; as scum poet) by inserting half-focused, black-and-white talking-head interview footage of Crash (as embodied by Shane West) making provocations about the need for a fascist state, Grossman is far more interested in him as rock god, capitulating to the standard biopic romanticization of truly unhappy people. (Gus Van Sant smartly abstracted such deification in Last Days.) Grossman may purposely portray Crash as self-mythologizing, but the film is all too happy to follow that lead.
The filmmaker is evidently enamored of the pockmarked beauty of the 1970s Los Angeles punk milieu, but his seemingly appropriate low budget doesn’t make his depiction of it any less broad than, say, Robert Zemeckis’s toontown evocation of 60s Americana in Forrest Gump. The whole thing looks suspiciously freshly scrubbed, with West its preening poster boy. On-stage, West, shirtless and self-lacerating, does mere mimicry, clutching his microphone close and wailing with just the right sneer to allow a glimmer of crooked teeth; off-stage, he’s merely hollow, all surface, an imitation of despair. And in either incarnation he’s about as dangerous as a Jonas brother in safety-pinned jeans—when Crash disrupts his own audition by throwing flour at his audience, it’s framed as triumphant, a scowl in the face of the small-potato powers that be, but West’s teenybopper mannerisms make it nothing more than a high school prank. The actor has an improperly ingratiating tone, perhaps unavoidably honed from years of making puppy-love to tween girl viewers in such films as Whatever It Takes, A Walk to Remember, and TV’s Once and Again, and listening to him squawk out Crash’s guttural antiestablishment screeds is like witnessing some sort of miscalculated drag act.
Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of What We Do Is Secret.