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.
Then again, actors better than West would still be hard-pressed to make Grossman’s endlessly expository dialogue work–it’s possible that Crash marked turning points in his five-year career with phrases like “Now it’s time to reinvent ourselves as something entirely new” or that before his final performance, a reunion show with the then-defunct Germs, he would self-legendarily proclaim to his on-again, off-again band mates, “We will make it like it was,” but when nearly every line from everyone’s mouth sounds so implausibly beat-hitting (“Hi, I’m Penelope Spheeris, and I’m directing a film called ‘The Decline of Western Civilization'”), one begins to lose faith in the filmmaker’s self-awareness. The filmmaking choices are as hackneyed as the dramatic ones: brief flashbacks to Crash’s hellish childhood as overlit nightmarish fragments; faux-doc interviews with cast members, replete with those mannered little zooms that now seem instantly parodic; overlaying a pointed “Fuck yeah, dude!” on the soundtrack so that Crash’s onstage mirror-shattering stint is communicated to the audience as properly groundbreaking.
If Grossman was so intent on unashamedly dramatizing Crash’s tortured personal and performative lives, why does he handle his sexuality with such kid gloves? By accounts, Crash’s homosexuality was largely on the down low, but that’s no excuse for Grossman to shy away from his relationship with hanger-on Rob (Ashton Holmes, from “A History of Violence“), depicted first as a discreet bedroom seduction, backed by an ominously strummed bass line, and forever after that as an ambiguous are-they-or-aren’t-they behind-the-scenes bromance. Instead, Grossman devotes more time to the cheap surfaces: bad wigs, worse drummer jokes, and one pathetic Rodney Bingenheimer imitation take places of honor here. Perhaps Crash’s oft-delivered expositions on the symbolism of the circle (the Germs’ token image and the cover of their breakthrough album, “(GI)”) is truly applicable to this latest glorification of living fast and dying young disguised as a paean to uncompromising rock. Around and around we go, and who’s the next dead 22-year-old we can ascend to martyr status?
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]