“What We Do Is Secret” is the opening track of the one and only album by The Germs, the most unruly and exciting band of the LA punk scene of the late 70s. They hold the twin distinctions of pressing the first LA punk 7-inch, and subsequently being banned from playing every club in the city as a result of lead singer Darby Crash’s willfully destructive urges. After one glorious year of tumult and escalating drug-use, Crash split up the band, reformed for one farewell show, then died of a self-administered heroin overdose. He missed out on headlines because John Lennon was shot to death on the other side of the country that same day.
What We Do Is Secret the movie is a biopic of the band, and specifically of Crash. Forcing traditional story elements such as character arc and development of conflict onto a pre-existing historical narrative is a tricky business, but director Rodger Grossman neatly sidesteps some of the usual problems by interspersing talking head interviews with the actors as band members and scenesters, creating a behind-the-music feel that is at once familiar and useful in providing explanation and, in Crash’s case, psychological context.
Crash is a frighteningly intelligent young man, whose five-year plan (inspired less by Lenin than by the Bowie song) involved getting a band together, getting fliers out, getting shows, getting instruments and then learning how to play them – the more traditional process almost in reverse, then, and quintessentially punk. The film opens on his blurred face, confidently articulate, telling us the band are fascists (but not Nazis), that he respects Hitler for being a genius but not for murdering all those innocent people, and positing that everything happens in circles, hence the band’s stark symbol of a plain blue circle. Later we will see him as child poring over Nietszche when his mother shoes him away from her bar stool. The circle symbol is what it is (self-justifying – and ironically open-ended – metaphor), but the more contentious of his views are left hanging – the appropriation of fascism and Nazi iconography by the punk movement was for the most part driven by aesthetic and anti-social rather than ideological motives; one can only assume that Crash thought a little harder about these issues than, say, Dee Dee Ramone, but they seem to impinge little upon the scenes of reenactment outside of the cod interviews, and it’s a shame one doesn’t learn a little more about his – and the band members’ – attitudes towards it. Perhaps, after all, it was no more than a pose for him too.
It’s hard to believe the rest of the band really gave a fuck about fascism. Pat Smear (later of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters) and Lorna Doom, as incarnated by Rick Gonzalez and Bijou Philips, are cute, sweet, funny people, with none of the self-torturing intensity of Shane West’s Crash, in love with being in a band, in love with playing shows, and rather in love with the charismatic Crash himself (Gonzalez is at his most appealing than when his grin cracks wide at “that new guitar smell”). They have the same problem as rock bands the world over – inability to find a suitable drummer (tip: get someone who can play jazz) – until Don Bolles, having heard the first single, drives from Arizona to be a Germ. He too is a lovable goofball (it helps that actor Noah Segan seems to channeling Andy Sandberg). The playing, like the costume design and the music (overseen by Smear) is note-perfect; outside the band, Sebastian Roche is terrific as Claude Bessy, French scenester/journalist for Slash magazine, and Ashton Holmes is effectively creepy as the pizza-faced fanboy Rob Henley who becomes the band’s Yoko almost from the off.
We also get glimpses of Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian of the Damned, checking out the Germs’ first impromptu show; Joan Jett passed out on the couch whilst “producing” their album; Penelope Spheeris renting a space to shoot the band for her Decline of Western Civilization; a hilarious J.P. Manoux as Rodney Bingenheimer, the KROQ DJ who broke the band on the radio; and an unidentified Black Flag whipping a club crowd up to a frenzy of violence. Local landmark Oki-Dog also makes a cameo appearance, as the hang-out of choice, but the film’s focus is trained on the band and Darby himself, with little opening up to show the LA scene as a whole; thus, we see some of the disruption that caused their shows to banned all over town, a few fans pop up (such as Henley) to swear their undying love, but mostly the effect the Germs had on the scene locally and further afield is told to us rather than shown. In a similar way, although we hear that everyone was bowled over by Crash’s literate, emotional lyrics, we get few samples beyond the mostly incomprehensible gig vocals (that’s punk!) until his graveside, when Smear recites the first verses that converted him; unfortunately they are a vaguely embarrassing teenage echo of verses two and three of “Ziggy Stardust”.
The behind the music format can’t but exacerbate this slight feeling of superficiality, and the close attention to the small group at the expense of actually representing historical context is further undermined by the fact that, as appealing as they are, Smear, Doom and Bolles remain (likable) adjuncts to the story of the ÃŒber-charismatic Crash himself. Because it’s West’s movie, swaggering and glowering, and totally embodying this strange young man, square-faced and acned but as magnetic as a god. WHilst Smear’s tasty guitar work was indispensable, The Germs’ success was almost entirely Crash’s doing, self-belief and self-promotion perfectly blended into one snotty kid who can credibly refuse to play if David Bowie is not left (improbably) on the guest-list. His will to power is driven by the desperation of adolescence and his self-confidence only falters when it comes to his sexuality. Some say Crash was exclusively gay, and if one wanted this area to be examined in any depth, particularly in relation to that will to power, his drug use, or his relationships with those around him, one would be disappointed. It was not his closetedness that drove him to suicide, but that was one factor amongst many – the unpleasant childhood, the drug use, the sense of purposelessness as his moment of glory fades, perhaps even the original conclusion to the five-year plan – that made him lash out at the world; for such a complex individual it’s no surprise that the script cannot quite encompass him, and it is to West’s credit that he invests such a difficult, iconic role with so much more with which to empathise than the words alone provide. Punk rockers won’t be disappointed, but then nor will anyone else unless they just can’t handle obnoxious, caterwauling punk rock (the way it’s meant to sound). Nice too to see that it’s getting props from folks who were actually there.
What We Do Is Secret opens in Los Angeles on 22 august.