Movie Review: What We Do Is Secret
By Sid Smith, Special to the Tribune
Like so many biopics before it, "What We Do Is Secret" boasts a terrific reincarnation of a late talent (Shane West of "ER" as the Germs' Darby Crash) and a blistering re-creation of his milieu, the grungy punk club scene of late-'70s Los Angeles.
But, like so many earlier movie biographies, "Secret" suffers from bathetic storytelling and dialogue, some of it laughable. The tale is gripping but hardly new: a breakthrough artist lured by drugs and inner demons to self-destruction. Director Rodger Grossman spent 10 years developing this biography and should have focused more of that time on his script. The best parts of "Secret" recall "Sid and Nancy." The worst evoke the last, inferior "A Star Is Born."
Crash (nee Jan Paul Beahm), who died at age 22 from a suicidal overdose, was unquestionably a fascinating figure. A hellacious performer, fascist poseur and borderline psychotic, he essentially willed himself into cult stardom, inventing his band by stringing together musicians who barely knew how to play. A disastrous early concert, more garage performance art than musical endeavor, is one of the best scenes Grossman re-creates. He has the feel and look of the era down pat.
But he rarely probes beyond the surface of Crash's life. The group's ongoing struggle with drummers devolves into situation comedy, and so does the peekaboo look at Crash's confused sexuality. For a lead character so edgy, the gay theme is handled with old-fashioned restraint.
There's also too little insight into the boredom and despair underlying the punk aesthetic. Grossman settles instead for dingy soap opera and hokey one-liners. Near the end, after the band's farewell concert and just before his death, Crash tells one singer, whose name he invented, that she'll always be Lorna Doone, as if to say, "They can't take that away from you." Good grief. In the context of the Germs' modest, nihilist accomplishments, the notion is silly as well as hackneyed.
Running time: 1:32. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.
MPAA rating: R (for drug use, language and brief sexuality).