Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Charlie Paul.
Iconic artist and cartoonist Ralph Steadman may not exactly be a household name, but chances are you have seen samples of his distinctive work. Over the course of several decades, Steadman has produced an astonishing body of work. He has always had a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak and much of his work was savagely critiquing the modern world. Although he had worked in London during much of the swinging sixties, he found a whole new level of notoriety when he went to America. Steadman’s ink splattered illustrations have graced Rolling Stone magazine; they were an integral part of Hunter S Thompson’s subversive gonzo journalism articles, and his drawings played an integral part in Thompson’s seminal novel Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Film buffs will even recognise his distinctive artwork that graced the poster for the cult classic Withnail And I.
This documentary from the husband and wife team of Lucy and Charlie Paul gives us some insight into Steadman and his work, and we get a rare opportunity to observe his creative process. For No Good Reason is the directorial debut of Paul who has worked as an advertising director for many years.
Johnny Depp (who was a big fan of Thompson’s work and has appeared in two film adaptations of his novels) acts as a de facto host for this film. Depp drops by Steadman’s country house and studio for a visit and an informal chat. It’s obvious that the two are good friends, and Depp’s presence is probably one of the reasons that Steadman has allowed the filmmakers access to his life and his studio. We see him create art work from scratch, beginning with a splatter of paint on a blank piece of paper. Steadman talks us through his creative process as he mixes colours and a drawing begins to take shape from the mess as he scrapes away at the surface. He even experiments with Polaroids, shaping the images before the film has fully emulsified. Even at the age of 76, Steadman has an unpretentious approach to his art, and he is still enthusiastic about his process and seems surprised at what he creates from scratch. And there is a melancholy touch as Steadman wonders how his work will be remembered. Steadman also talks about the conflict between art and commerce, and seems disdainful of the economic aspect of his career.
The film highlights many examples of Steadman’s unique work, his grotesque caricatures, and the anger and venom that spews out of his illustrations. And the filmmakers have boldly animated some of Steadman’s work, bringing them briefly to life and giving them extra dimension and meaning.
There are also lots of amusing, self deprecating anecdotes about the unusual and volatile partnership between Steadman and Hunter S Thompson, especially as the rabble rousing pair travelled through the States, drinking heavily and taking copious amounts of drugs. Steadman was a fairly prim and proper Englishman until he met Thompson, and was seduced by a hedonistic lifestyle of drugs and liquor that shook up the more conservative and quietly spoken artist. But somehow Steadman’s crazed illustrations were a perfect match for Thompson’s viciously funny prose.
There is some home movie footage and archival footage showing Steadman and his contemporaries Thompson and William S Burroughs that reveal the wild times they shared. Thompson’s presence looms large over the film. There are also brief interviews with the likes of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, Richard E Grant and Tim Robbins, who comment on Steadman’s influence as they share their experiences with the eccentric illustrator.
I didn’t know much about Ralph Steadman before seeing this film, and I didn’t know all that much more about him 100 minutes later. Somewhat disappointingly, the film lacks depth and offers precious few insights into Steadman himself. He still remains a bit of a cipher by the end of the film.
For the uninitiated For No Good Reason is a good introduction to the work of Steadman, and may even make some people want to check out more of his cartoons and illustrations.