Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A few streaks, splotches may have rescued documentary

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IN his famous illustrations, Ralph Steadman established a trademark of anarchic streaks and splotches of India ink as if to suggest this was the work of a madman barely in control of his brushes.

That is actually not the case. But in the early minutes of Charlie Paul's documentary on Steadman, it emerges that the infamous artist does put his creativity at the mercy of the first few splattering of ink he throws at his paper, letting those arcs and spatter dictate the work of art he will eventually find.

As an artist, Steadman was, and is, wonderfully spontaneous.

Dismayingly, Paul's portrait of Steadman is altogether more premeditated and contrived. Punctuated with animated versions of Steadman's art, the doc looks good but registers as paper-thin.

Paul skips over great sections of Steadman's youth and his personal life to cut to the chase of his associations with gun-toting American outlaw writers, Hunter S. Thompson and William S. Burroughs.

To tap into Steadman's connections with the cool and the crazy, Paul enlists Thompson's portrayer (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and pal Johnny Depp, a guy who brings no small amount of cool cachet himself.

Depp is not exactly a host to the proceedings so much as a guest, insinuating himself into Steadman's home and studio and (presumably) guiding him in his remembrances of his artistic life.

As he did in life, the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson manages to dominate his way into the frame. Of course, Steadman's collaborations with Thompson were satisfying to the artist. Thompson's narrative freedom allowed Steadman equal licence, and the Englishman thoroughly enjoyed putting lovely/grotesque images to Thompson's words, until the relationship soured when Steadman felt overshadowed.

The movie focuses so narrowly on that relationship, we learn little else about the 78-year-old gent. He has a wife, for example, but we learn absolutely nothing about her. Ditto on his upbringing.

We do at least get a sense of Steadman's mission, which was no less than using his talent to change the world. Fear and Loathing director Terry Gilliam appears briefly to put that ambition in caustic perspective: We did change the world. No one cares.

Maybe. In any case, Steadman can certainly take solace in the fact that he changed the face of art -- certainly magazine illustration -- with his radical techniques. That -- and not Depp's weirdly ambiguous contributions -- are the movie's principal takeaway.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2014 D2

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