What We Do Is Secret
by Jason Coffman
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Last year, the number of musician biopics finally hit critical mass, and the result was a dead-on parody (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) that lampooned the by-now familiar broad strokes of seemingly every film in the genre. The fact that the biopic is an easy target didn’t make Walk Hard any less brilliant—the problem is that there’s no denying the broad strokes of many famous people’s lives are very similar. This applies in pretty much any case, even with subjects as iconoclastic as Ian Curtis of Joy Division (as portrayed in Anton Corbijn’s excellent Control) and now Darby Crash of the Germs in Rodger Grossman’s What We Do Is Secret.
The film depicts the brief history of the influential punk band The Germs and, more specifically, their self-destructive leader Darby Crash (Shane West). After being given straight A’s in school in trade for never coming back to classes, Darby decides to start a band with his friend Pat Smear (Rick Gonzalez) and “two girls who don’t know how to play” the bass and drums—leading them to find bass player Lorna Doom (Bijou Phillips) and into a famous history of drummer problems. Crash has a five-year plan for the band, and eventually drummer Don Bolles (Noah Segan) completes the band’s lineup. What follows is the quick rise and abrupt disappearance of the band, as Darby becomes more and more dependent on hard drugs and the support of creepy superfan Amber (Missy Doty).
Like Control, What We Do Is Secret is anchored by a strong lead performance (Shane West is excellent) and punctuated by exciting live performances. However, they are otherwise entirely different films, even if they can’t help but share some similarities in portraying the too-short lives of their tragic subjects. Whereas Control was distinguished by its gorgeous black and white cinematography and straightforward narrative, What We Do Is Secret is presented as a series of in-character interviews that bookend scenes out of Darby’s (and the band’s) life. The interviews seem to occur around the time that events happen in the film’s narrative, other than Darby’s interviews, which are all shown in black and white. While the “in-character interview” is not new, playing the interviews around the time of the depicted events keeps the film moving at a lively clip.
It’s a sad fact that the biopic is an inherently derivative and familiar style of film. Sad in that so many of those depicted suffered the same problems and in that it makes things very difficult for the filmmaker who wants to distinguish his subject’s story from so many others. Control stood out from other similar films because of its singular style and careful attention to the fine details of Curtis’s life. What We Do Is Secret doesn’t quite give the same feeling of getting close to Darby Crash—it’s unlikely that if you don’t know much about him you’ll come out of the film feeling like you learned all that much. However, the film is still well worth a look for its all-around great performances and as a tiny peek into the fringes of early L.A. punk rock.
Jason Coffman is a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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