What We Do is SecretWritten and directed by Rodger GrossmanStarring Shane West, Bijou Phillips, Rick Gonzalez and Noah SeganRated R*4.5*
Goes well with: Sid & Nancy, The Decline of Western Civilization, SuburbiaThe first time I encountered the Germs was via a college screening of The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris' definitive doc on American punk rock that should be compulsory viewing in public high school American-history classes. I snuck into it when I was still too young to know any better, and the scenes of Germs singer Darby Crash hanging out in his kitchen, making breakfast with his girlfriend, talking about show injuries and dead house painters, stuck with me. Even though The Germs were over—ended by, among other things, Crash's suicide—that movie led me to punk, which ruled over a hefty part of my high-school years. All of which should put me squarely in the right demo for What We Do is Secret, the new biopic from first-time director Rodger Grossman.
But, sadly, What We Do is Secret should remain secret.
Before you decide that I might be too close to the source material, let me say this: It brings me no joy whatsoever to tear down a young director or a film about a band that I think was important. Am I, or was I, a Germs fan? Sure—I guess. I probably don't need to hear G.I., the band's lone album, again, but that shit was tight. The problems I have with the film have little to do with my own history. No, the movie's issues are in its trite and clichéd dialogue and its paper-thin characters.
For the uninitiated, The Germs were one of the seminal L.A. punk bands of the late '70s and early '80s. They were utterly destructive and eventually unable to play L.A. clubs because their shows moved quickly from moshing to near- or actual riots. This is the band guitarist Pat Smear co-founded, and it was led by better-than-average lyricist, perpetually wasted Darby Crash, who killed himself with heroin in late 1980, choosing the night before John Lennon's murder for his exit, thereby avoiding most major headlines. Sure, that's tragic, but it's also seriously punk rock. Crash never got the sendoff he deserved, but the irony wouldn't have been lost on him.
It's to Grossman's credit that he tries to make the characters in What We Do is Secret real people. But he doesn't succeed. Instead, they often come off like kids doing a melodramatic movie-of-the-week. “Is this what we wanted?” bassist Lorna Doom asks Darby as fame and a little fortune finally come their way. Or Pat Smear shaking him and saying, “I'm not going to stand by and watch you kill yourself!”
Shane West gives Crash a ruthless intelligence, turning him into a sensitive conniver who makes calculated choices at every turn in his short life. West is good, but he never captures the oblivious youth that Crash was also all about.
Sure, the singer had a five-year master plan for his band, but that makes him a precocious teen, not an M.B.A. I'm not suggesting he wasn't a smart guy—I never met him—but the dude killed himself at 22. That's young, and What We Do is Secret almost makes him too complex, rather than the down-and-dirty angry mofo that he was. His performances, which were, um, enhanced, by heavy drug use, were brutal and savage, incoherent and generally not sung into the mic. But he had charisma and energy that empowered his fans. In fact, it's the Germs shows in What We Do is Secret that feel the most authentic. And it should be said that Crash's former bandmates apparently appreciated West's work, because they hired him to be their frontman for a Germs reunion tour.
Still, in the end, the movie just doesn't feel authentic, and punk, above all else, is—or, at the very least, should be—authentic. In the film's faux-documentary sequences, the band members act like they're on a poorly scripted reality show. And it's too bad, because in the end, fans of The Germs will likely find it lacking credibility, while neophytes won't become interested in the band.