If you drew a portrait of the twentieth century, it would most likely look like the work of artist Ralph Steadman. The British artist and cartoonist has used his distinctive talent to run along the events in his lifetime as a commentator and artistic anarchist, in particular in his work with journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Steadman and his work are the subject of this new documentary from filmmaker Charlie Paul, ‘For No Good Reason’, but how well does it walk the fine line that biography exists on between hero worship and balanced portrait?
Paul has much archival material at his disposal, including sketches, photographs and interviews with Steadman and his collaborators, but central to the documentary is a contemporary glimpse into Steadman’s life today. Actor Johnny Depp spends a few days with Steadman at his home, where they discuss Steadman’s process and his memories of working with Thompson. Steersman proves himself an engaging subject, able to recall and dramatise the tales that fill his fascinating life. He also offers us a glimpse at his artistic process, sifting through a chaos of paint and ink to find the image within. Of the interviews, this is the real gold, and says far more about the man than talk ever could.
Unfortunately, for all the banter in the film, we seem to learn very little about Steadman. Sure, it discusses ad nauseum his political beliefs and the role his work has played in history, but skips over almost any biographical detail, beginning at the point where his career is just taking off. Once we hit his collaborations with Thompson, the film further derails and spends far more time discussing Thompson than Steadman. This isn’t helped by the fact that Depp, a disciple of Thompson, leads the questions and interviews firmly in that direction. It’s all interesting, but that isn’t the film we came to see. It often threatens to fall into hero worship of Steadman, but when Thompson comes into the story it dives head-first. For a film discussing such fascinating moments in political, social and artistic history, ‘For No Good Reason’ is surprisingly empty.
One major highlight of the film though are the animated sequences where Steadman’s work is brought vividly to life. There are a lot of these sequences, but they turn out to be the most stirring and interesting material in the film, and much like watching Steadman work, they say far more about the importance of this man and his work in our social history. Great care and imagination has gone into these sequences, making them worth spending the time with the film.
Ralph Steadman is capable of saying so much more in his work than words ever could, the pain and fury of the injustice in the world and exaltation in the perverse and unusual. Unfortunately, ‘For No Good Reason’ doesn’t even come close to matching it, opting instead to hero worship its subject, at least until someone more interesting comes along. It’s a great pity, as everything is there to suggest that a great documentary might be hiding in there somewhere, but rather than leaving the cinema feeling energised and inspired, it just leaves you empty, appreciative of the art but nothing more. And that is the last thing a documentary about Ralph Steadman should be.