It started as a symbol, a bright blue circle on a black background, which showed up on stickers, buttons and on faded black t-shirts. That was how I became aware of The Germs. L.A.'s first punk band of note entered my teenage consciousness through the album cover design for G.I., the first punk record -- the first record period -- to be released by Slash Records, which would boom a short while later by signing X. The symbol looked vaguely medical, like something out of The Andromeda Strain, but was instantly iconic, like the cover of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, another simple graphic on a black background. To Darby Crash, the band's founder and leader, it symbolized a circle of influence encompassing those who knew The Germs, those who had become "infected" with punk rock.
Then, of course, there is the come on, "What We Do Is Secret," a phrase that was always associated with the circle, so much so that I believed that it was the title of the album (instead of G.I.). What could be more seductive? A new movement from somewhere deep inside California's southern wasteland, emanating from a nondescript garage in one of the miles and miles of tract homes that radiate out from Hollywood, a ground zero, an epicenter. Curiosity peaked. It became a mission to discover exactly what it is that they "do."
Then there was the band's appearance in The Decline of Western Civilization, a film whose influence was so great and was so often cited, my friends and I referred to it as just "Decline." Penelope Spheeris's documentary about the early L.A. punk scene features a hilarious interview with The Germs' manager -- "It's more like being the mother of four three-year-olds who are always fighting with each other... Sometimes I get to the end of my rope and just wanna batter my children." Darby Crash makes breakfast and plays with his pet tarantula. The Germs' performance in the film is comical. The band is certainly tight, providing a slinky, sinister backdrop for Darby Crash, who opens his mouth and lets out one gutteral moan after another, which Spheeris subtitles with each song's lyrics, an interesting comment on the band's importance and the state in which she's found them. The crowd throws things at the stage and taunts Crash, who is clearly strung out on drugs, falling down and hurting himself, just barely able to squawk out a phrase or two now and again. Someone draws all over Darby's body with a sharpie, as he prowls the stage like a panther, clearly the ringleader of this chaotic catharsis. The performance ends with Crash falling off the P.A. system, microphone cord wrapped around his neck, a grimace on his face, and voilá -- another icon. This image is used on the documentary's poster and accompanying soundtrack album. My teenage friends and I will stare at it for hours.
The Germs broke up shortly after that performance, reforming to play one gig in December, 1980 to "show the new punks on the scene what it had all been like back at the beginning." By the time the blue circles of influence had radiated to my home town in central CA, Darby Crash had already offed himself, sealing his own and the band's legend.
No wonder this story would compel the production of the bio-pic, What We Do Is Secret. Its subject is a potent L.A. myth and the rebirth of Southern California's music scene; a scene that, like all good subcultures, was destined to self-destruct. It is the tale of an energetic resistance movement, of punks creating anti-corporate anthems over music too chaotic for most ears in an era that witnessed the rise of Ronald Reagan. For young Hollywood filmmakers, who may not have even been born at the time, this period must be fascinating, not to mention ripe for mining: only a few good films (Repo Man and Spheeris'sThe Decline of Western Civilization and Suburbia) attempted to document it.
Given all the history involved, I was excited to see What We Do Is Secret, and I think that, all considered, the filmmakers did a really good job capturing some of the energy of the early punk scene. They paint a compelling portrait of Darby Crash who, according to this film, was queer in a (sometimes) brutally heterosexual scene. Who knew?
However, there is something basically unsatisfying in the conception of most musical bio-pics. Sure, the quickest way to win an Oscar is to simulate the ups and downs of a beloved music icon, with requisite temper tantrums, infidelity and the deal-clinching (for Oscar anyway) drug withdrawal scene. But I always walk out of those movies disgusted. Is this how we choose to explore the genius of Ray Charles? By watching a terrible actor (Jamie Foxx) behave badly in scene after scene, then finally kick drugs and "see" his momma for the first time? Is that all there is to Patsy Cline (Sweet Dreams, Jessica Lange) -- bad luck with bad men? Was Edith Piaf (La Vie En Rose, Marion Cotillard) really just a collection of hyper-stylized nervous ticks, more bad luck with bad men, and a problem with booze and pills? Was the tragedy of Ian Curtis (Control, Sam Riley) just a bad marriage and an epileptic fit?
It's difficult to capture creative genius on film. Even the best documentaries wrestle with this problem. Perhaps that's what makes I'm Not There and The Rose so compelling. They try to get at the essence of their subjects (Dylan, Joplin) by discarding any connection with reality. One doesn't reveal a beloved creative artist through the facts of his or her life, but through portraying the strategies he or she develops to deal with that life. It isn't so much occurrences, which are easily filmed, that are at the root of a person's creativity; it's the internal processes that are essential to what builds these characters into people we are compelled to look at, compelled to love.
Similarly, there is something dispiriting to watching Shane West (nee Shane Wreck) simulate the life of Darby Crash, even if he's had the practice of actually being in a reconstituted version of The Germs. West walks well enough down the path of Darby's life (the conception of the band, Crash's onstage mishaps, and his ultimate death wish), but he cannot encapsulate the things that made Darby Crash a legend. Crash's drive, his own unique character, his creative intelligence and charisma are the elements responsible. Watching an actor, no matter how good, try to simulate that is a somewhat empty experience. Likewise, watching the reenactment of The Germs' gig, the same gig that appears in The Decline of Western Civilization, is like seeing an animal at the zoo in a simulation of his "natural habitat." The animals look lackluster and bored. It's strange to see a mosh pit look that way, too.
What We Do Is Secret opens in Bay Area theaters Friday, August 29, 2008.