For four decades, the Rolling Stone masthead has listed Ralph Steadman as contributing editor for “gardening.” This may be the funniest running gag in journalism. The idea of Rolling Stone having a gardening editor is loopy enough, unless growing your own counts. Even loopier is that editor being Steadman, he of the ferociously in-your-face illustrations, all venomy splatter and visual ferocity.
Yet the artist on display in “For No Good Reason” is hospitable in manner and grandfatherly in appearance (Steadman turns 78 next Thursday). No wonder Johnny Depp treats him with such affection and deference. One of the best things about the documentary is their interaction, as Depp visits Steadman at his home in the English countryside — surely, it has a garden? — watching him draw and paint (and splatter) in his studio while asking him questions about his life and work.
Many of the questions relate to Hunter S. Thompson, the crazed king of Gonzo journalism. Steadman became famous illustrating Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and various articles in Rolling Stone. “We were like chalk and cheese,” he tells Depp — even if also “the one man I needed to meet in all of America to work with.” It was a match made in magazine heaven: demonic prose illustrated by even more demonic artwork.
Depp comes by his presence in the documentary naturally. He unerringly imitated Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s movie version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” played the lead in the film of Thompson’s novel, “The Rum Diary,” and paid the expenses for his funeral. Thompson appears in archival footage, and his spectral presence hovers over the film. Even in a documentary about Steadman, there’s a sense in which he takes second billing to his old collaborator.
That’s not necessarily unjust. Distinctive as Steadman’s artwork is, it owes much of that distinctiveness to other artists who very clearly influenced him: Hieronymous Bosch (a bit); Egon Schiele (a touch); George Grosz; Otto Dix; Jackson Pollock; Gerald Scarfe; above all, Francis Bacon. Even though Steadman says that Picasso is his biggest inspiration, it’s Bacon without whose example his work is unimaginable. There’s the same sense — and look — of flayed flesh and flayed emotion.
The documentary includes a snippet of an old interview with Bacon. Steadman says of him, “He always managed to make his pictures look like an event.” That’s a shrewd observation. A problem with Steadman’s work is that his own pictures tend to look like the same event. That’s one reason he’s suited to illustration: He can rely on the accompanying text to provide development.
Steadman has a pronounced sensibility, compounded of rage, idealism, and anarchism. “Authority is the mask of violence,” he says, and his art is about turning that mask inside out. Another problem with Steadman’s work is that he lacks a hand or eye comparably developed to the sensibility. An exclamatory style requires particularly expert execution. Passion, not precision, is Steadman’s metier.
“For No Good Reason” takes its title from Thompson’s standard response when asked why he intended to do something. Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner turns up as a talking head, as do Gilliam and actor Richard E. Grant.
Although the documentary has a nicely relaxed rhythm, it can be awfully busy visually. Whenever Steadman mentions getting a phone call — which happened a lot, since he lived in England and there were all those assignments coming from America — director Charlie Paul cuts to a shot of . . . a rotary-dial telephone. Steadman illustrations are animated. Archival footage is sped up. It gets to be a bit much. There’s no more exciting effect in the documentary than the look of pure pleasure on Depp’s face as he stands by Steadman’s drawing table, peeking over his shoulder as he attacks a sheet of paper. Ralph Steadman with a brush in one hand and an open bottle of ink in the other is a truly formidable special effect.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.