Some artistic marriages seem preordained.
We’ll never know exactly what forces brought together the likes of Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Merce Cunningham and John Cage, David Byrne and Brian Eno. The important thing is that these creative planets collided with one another, some artistic version of nuclear fission occurred, and we all get to live in the glorious fallout.
One perfect artistic match that doesn’t get quite as much ink or attention as it probably deserves is the one between journalist Hunter S. Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman. Together, the rabble-rousing writer and the tortured artist relied upon one another and created one of the more successful and memorable collaborations between visual art and journalism that’s ever existed.
Their rocky but productive relationship, warts and all, is on full display in “For No Good Reason,” a new documentary opening Friday. Director Charlie Paul built the film around a visit or series of visits paid to Steadman by actor Johnny Depp, a devotee of Thompson who played the famous author in the film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Steadman, now 78, paints a quiet but compelling picture of his life. In a candid interview, he admits his goal as a young artist was to change the world. But, like many young artists with world-changing goals, he didn’t quite know where to start. Fortunately, he got a pretty good idea when he crossed paths with Thompson after moving to the United States from his native England and the two sent their first collaboration, 1970’s “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” to the presses.
After that, they were off and running. Steadman’s free-form, blown-ink caricatures seemed to work in perfect concert with Thompson’s vivid descriptions and played a vital supporting role in the creation of the Gonzo journalism style. Together, their work appeared in many places, most notably in Rolling Stone and in Thompson’s books.
The film makes clear that Steadman puts his work on equal footing with Thompson’s, a dubious proposition but an understandable one. Steadman suffers under the familiar weight borne by many talented draftsmen who work with representational figures and struggle to be recognized as important contemporary artists.
One of the most thrilling parts of the film comes from Kevin Richards’ smart and subtle animation of Steadman’s illustrations, which come to life just enough to give them some extra depth without going overboard. It’s also fascinating to see footage of Steadman and Thompson in their prime and afterward, as a certain animosity creeps into their relationship and the profit motive seems to take over entirely. A scene in which Steadman demonstrates his painting technique in his studio will be worth the price of admission for any current or aspiring artist.
Some of the visual gimmicks in the film go a bit too far, such as its insistence on showing Jann Wenner speak against a floating backdrop of text that constantly distorts the image. Though Depp appears throughout the film, he mercifully stays unobtrusive, occasionally piping up on camera to ask a pointed question or two.
Next to a personality as large and looming as Thompson, it’s easy to see why Steadman and his peculiar genius might get lost in the mix. Thanks to “For No Good Reason,” we won’t have to worry about that anymore.