What We Do Is Secret

2008, Movie, R, 92 mins


Shane West does a pretty impressive impersonation of the on-stage antics of Darby Crash, the ill-fated lead singer of L.A. punk band the Germs who died of an intentional heroin overdose in 1980, one day before John Lennon's murder in New York City. Unfortunately, little else in this clunky, half-baked biopic rings very true.

Born Jan Paul Beahm in 1958 and raised in West L.A. by a woman of questionable mental stability, the future frontman of one of the most influential -- and notorious -- American punk bands formed the Germs as something of a joke. After catching The Damned during an early US tour, Beahm (West) and his best, friend Pat Ruthenberg (Rick Gonzalez), renamed themselves Bobby Pyn and Pat Smear and formed a band of their own. Without even bothering to rehearse, they took to the stage of L.A. Oprheum Theater with bassist Terri Ryan (Bijou Phillips) -- later Lorna Doom -- and a girl named Becky (Amy Halloran) on drums. Becky would soon prove just one in a series of temporary solutions to what becomes known as the Germs' "drummer problem," which was eventually solved by the arrival of Don Bolles (Noah Segan), a fan from Phoenix, Arizona. (For a minute or two, future Go-Go Belinda Carlisle, played here by Lauren German, sat behind the Germs' drum kit). The Orpheum show devolves into booing and mayhem, with Bobby Pyn throwing food and berating the audience, but despite their obvious lack of skills -- or perhaps because of it -- the Germs are soon playing local clubs alongside such L.A. punk luminaries as X, the Weirdos and the Screamers. Not everyone takes them seriously, but under his incomprehensible growl Bobby Pyn is actually singing darkly poetic lyrics drawn from his chief influences: Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, Charles Manson, Adolph Hitler and his idol, David Bowie. Pyn -- now calling himself Darby Crash after the persona in his song "Circle One" -- is more than happy to describe himself as a Fascist (though not an anti-Semite), and revels in the cult of personality that has begun to form around him, an inner-circle of idolaters who identify one another by the distinctive "Germ Burns" applied to their wrist with cigarettes. Mostly they're besotted "Germettes" who don't know -- or don't care -- that Darby is secretly gay and who are willing to supply beer, food and eventually heroin. This circle of Darby lovers soon includes his boyfriend, surfer Rob Henley (Ashton Holmes), whose own ambitions to become the Germs drummer would turn him into the band's very own Yoko. But Darby Crash doesn't need Rob to tear his band apart: Rampant drug use, violent crowds that literally bay for his blood and Darby's own five-year plan that culminates in rock 'n' roll suicide is enough to turn the Germs from provocative on-stage train-wreck to posthumous punk-rock legend.

Grossman's script draws heavily on Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs, a hugely entertaining oral history by Bolles, club impresario Brendan Mullen and publisher Adam Parfrey. Grossman uses the same first-person interview structure, but fails to capture the book's electric immediacy. Nor does he include key chapters in Crash's biography. Crash and Smear's bizarre education at the hands of a group of est and Scientology enthusiasts is never discussed, and Crash's paranoia and suicidal agonizing over being gay in an increasingly homophobic scene -- a scene he was largely responsible for fomenting -- is downplayed. The reasons behind Crash's death might be the most relevant lesson to be learned from the Germs story, and one can only dream of what a filmmaker like Gus Van Sant might have made from the material. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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