He may have used David Bowie's Ziggy opener "Five Years" as inspiration for his rock philosophy in crafting L.A.'s notorious 70's punk band The Germs but in the end it was the last track off the same Bowie album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars that served as the bookend for the all too brief, fast and furious life of Darby Crash. For when the record ran out and the needle went around and around Mars, listeners realized they'd come an awfully long way from "Five Years" when Crash took it literally and ended his own life via an altogether different needle, as just another "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide."
In What We Do Is Secret, the culmination of AFI educated filmmaker Rodger Grossman's fifteen year obsession with Darby Crash and The Germs who released "the first punk record in Los Angeles history" and were later immortalized by the young documentarian Penelope Spheeris in her film, The Decline of Western Civilization, viewers feel as though we're given backstage passes to both the unparalleled excitement and inevitable destruction of four band-mates who teamed up to become famous first and learn how to make music second.
It features Shane West in a career making role as Crash a.k.a. our mysterious central figure whose goal of martyrdom was shortchanged when he perished unknowingly on the exact same night that found John Lennon assassinated. Grossman's compelling, authentic, and intoxicating docudrama shoves us onstage with The Germs whether we'd like to be there or not.
Witnessing the early formation of the group, we meet the boy with a horrific past, West's Crash-- originally born Jan Paul Beahm-- as he concocts his Warhol-tinged, Bowie-inspired nihilistic plan to start a band with his best friend (played by Rick Gonzalez). Crash-- who believes in a theory that all life is comprised of circles and right now he's existing in "circle one," confesses to the camera in wonderfully edited footage that cuts in and out of the film's traditional narrative structure to give it a more grimy, insider's low-budget punk doc feel. After spending far too much time reading Nietzsche, Crash uses his heroes for inspiration as he makes a decision "to be punk" without worrying about the toll it would take on his life.
Soon they post signs looking for "two untalented girls" who would like to join them and a young Belinda Carlisle responds before taking off on her own, soon Beahm renames everyone, dubbing the loyal blonde bassist Lorna Doom (gamely played by Bijou Phillips) and his friend and guitarist, Pat Smear. Although, like most bands, they had endless drummer difficulties finding and retaining a drummer who would dedicate themselves solely to The Germs, as the now self-proclaimed Darby Crash demanded exclusivity. Yet after their first record makes them a local sensation, a young, ambitious drummer drives up from Arizona to join the group. Jimmy Giorsetti (played by Noah Segan), who'd already re-christened himself Don Bolles (after a mafia murdered journalist from his home-state) proved to be a solid addition to the group, if routinely under-appreciated by the difficult Crash.
With a volatile personality and over-indulgence in the type of staged theatrics made famous by the musical icons of his era like Bowie and Iggy Pop including cutting himself across the chest or in their earliest impromptu performance with zero musical preparation, using food as a prop to provoke in the tradition of L.A. joke bands, The Germs quickly become a cult sensation. Although they've been kicked out of and banned from so many clubs that there's nowhere left to perform since L.A. punk is more about Hollywood styled image than New York punk or British punk and at times, Crash and others can't even take the stage without a brawl, soon hard drugs and hangers-on begin driving a wedge between the band-mates.
When a rich girl buys her way into Darby's good graces by supplying him with an endless fix of booze and substances and later proclaims herself the new manager and a young handsome but acne-plagued groupie named Rob (Ashton Holmes) becomes "the Yoko Ono of the Germs' brief shining hour," when Darby falls for him, we realize it's only a matter of time before the Germs self-destruct.
Although Grossman's labor-of-love which earned him the Best Feature Film Award at the Newport Beach Film Festival took so many years to get made that actors came and went (including David Arquette who at one time was attached to star as Darby) and authenticity reigned supreme as "thousands of hours of original interviews" were conducted, he still paints the portrait in broad, non-specific strokes. With some vague characterizations and plot-points concerning the facts, it's less a traditional--"on this day, Darby had breakfast"--styled biopic than most and more of a haunting, artistic snapshot of a chaotic time and place. While no doubt, viewers unfamiliar with The Germs and Crash will still have lingering questions, the film is hypnotic and West (who I'd only seen in the Nicholas Sparks teen weepie A Walk to Remember) completely transforms right before our eyes into the illusive, enigmatic singer.
With the real Pat Smear serving as the music producer and official instructor to whip the actors into musical shape and one of Darby's closest friends, Michelle Baer Ghaffari producing to help ensure the film's accuracy, it's no wonder that the musically talented West (the son of musicians) who had to stay true to the project during its twenty-one day shoot over a two year production period became so entrenched in all things Darby that he's now been made the official new lead singer for The Germs.
Having booked gigs with the original Germs members with West on vocals, as The New York Times aptly noted, given their jam-packed but relatively short history together, "Mr West has been a Germ nearly long as Crash was." This end result of The Germs being "the first band to embrace the actor from the biopic as their singer and then go on to perform together like nothing happened," as Bolles explained makes What We Do Is Secret successful on a number of levels.
Obviously on the surface, it serves as proof that West (who also earned an award at the Philadelphia Film Festival) completely nailed the role, but also it augments Grossman's already superb film. However, more importantly it ensures that Crash's legacy went on much longer than five years, even after the record stopped, the needle was removed, and new genres of music overtook the Los Angeles rock scene.
So maybe, in the words of Crash, we've completed "circle one" and have now moved onto "circle two," where music can live on and one can still find a way to be punk without ultimate destruction and chaos. Or, perhaps this was all still part of the plan and we're all still in the midst of the mysterious blue "circle one," that helped serve as the band's logo. Either way, The Rise and Fall of Darby Crash (to misquote Bowie) may still contain some unanswerable questions but What We Do is Secret sure manages to start a fascinating dialogue more than thirty years after Darby decided that practice has no place in punk and the best way to do something is to grab a microphone and jump in, whether you or the audience are ready or not.
With a digital copy to bring the film along on your portable device and featuring stunning 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound to recapture the acoustics of an over-crowded nightclub at one a.m. and with compelling filmmaker and actor commentary, Rodger Grossman's Secret will be released on DVD starting tomorrow so form a circle and get in line.