“Buy The Ticket Take The Ride” Review

Aquarian Weekly 12/6/06 REALITY CHECK

“BUY THE TICKET, TAKE THE RIDE” In Praise Of A New Hunter S. Thompson Documentary

In the labyrinth that became American culture in the sixties and seventies, Hunter S. Thompson just might have been at the center, and in a way, that center still holds. – Opening narrative from “Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride”

Buy The Ticket, Take The RideFourteen months ago, roughly four months after his subject’s suicide, filmmaker Tom Thurman set out to gather together an eclectic group of artists, writers, actors, and historians, and threw them together with colleagues, friends and family of fellow Kentuckian, Hunter S. Thompson to compile their memories, anecdotes, and critiques on film. The result is the poignant, passionate, often compelling, and thoroughly entertaining “Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride”, premiering on the STARZ movie channel December 12.

Doctor Thompson, as discussed more than a little in this space over the years, is one of the celebrated godfathers of our aim and purpose here at the Reality Check News & Information Desk, and as such any new material on the late master is wired in. So a few months back I was sent a pre-screened version of the film and upon review was sincerely blown away. For my money, having spoken with Thompson on several occasions and having been a fan for decades, Thurman captured the true essence of the man, the soul of his persona and his work, which more times than not crashed into each other in creative and destructive ways.

Fact is “Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride” is the first significant film biography of one of the 20th century’s finest satirists since his death. Aside from three uneven print biographies, and our pal Wayne Ewing’s cinéma vérité masterpiece, “Breakfast With Hunter”, it is the only complete overview of Thompson’s life and legacy to date. In addition, using the STARZ “movie channel” theme, the dcoumentary also doubles as a study in Thompson’s impact on Hollywood and popular culture through a study of the two film adaptations of his work, “Where The Buffalo Roam” and “Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas”.

“As sad as it might be, there are a lot of people who have come to Hunter S. Thompson through the film adaptations, and they know more about Bill Murray and Johnny Depp than know about his writing,” Thurman told me in our recent conversation about the film’s premier. “So the real aim was to be able to discuss these issues and these themes and ultimately try and send many of these viewers back to what’s most important, his writings.”

Here’s where Thurman does his best tightrope act; mixing Thompson’s art with the art created from and about him.

Distinct film clips work as exclamations and parenthetical asides to the wealth of background offered by illuminating interviews, file footage, and rare photographs. The aforementioned Murray and Depp, who both portrayed some form of the author on film, make intriguing observations about their channeling of the Thompson idiosyncrasies and mannerisms to best exorcize the personality from the icon and the words from the craftsman. Their subsequent performances, while both unique, furiously exhibit the fruits of their labor, as does the clips Thurman uses to illustrate it.

Fact is “Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride” is the first significant film biography of one of the 20th century’s finest satirists since his death.

“We wanted to create a sophisticated, evocative interplay between the film clips and the interview participants,” the director points out. “To have one feed into the other for there to be an energy between the people on camera and the film clips that I can use to illustrate people’s attempts to bring Hunter’s work to film, to carefully study the films themselves, so then I can maybe educate people and hopefully entertain them and let them have a little fun at the same time.”

The “little fun” starts with unscripted lunacy from eccentric actor Gary Busey, who opens the film trying to direct Thurman and his crew in a self-styled “scenario” which tumbles uncontrollably from pathetically silly to downright goofy. Then there is the whiskey-gnarled narration ably delivered by actor Nick Nolte, who is joined by an oddly harmonious stew of celebrity voices including Sean Penn, Tom Wolfe, George McGovern, Ralph Steadman, Douglas Brinkley, the late Ed Bradley, and even William F. Buckley Jr., among others.

There is a real sense throughout the film that the fusion of divergent personalities and their swirling examinations is the key to understanding Thompson’s enigmatic ride. But as diverse as the principles are, there is a central premise that runs throughout: Thompson confuses, attracts, reviles, and intrigues, but he is never without title.

Thurman sees Thompson as a kind of sun around which other planets revolve. “People felt the heat from Hunter,” he told me. “They knew there was something unique going on there, and they wanted to get a piece of it, to be influenced by it.”

In many cases, as Thurman points out, some of these planets collided in a very salient way.

“I wanted use a passage about Muhammad Ali as an example of Hunter’s long-standing attraction to an interest in sports, and Ali, like Thompson, was born and raised in Louisville, and came to prominence almost at the same exact time. I also wanted to use it because it seemed to me that Hunter was talking about himself when talking about Ali. So we’ve got Thompson, the original creator of the passage, who’s from Louisville, writing about Muhammad Ali, who was also from Louisville, and was such a key cultural figure at the time, being read by Johnny Depp, who is also from Kentucky, and is one of the leading entertainment-industry figures in the entire world. So there seemed to be an interesting confluence of Kentucky connections right there.”

“Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride” covers all the key characters in the Hunter Thompson saga, including childhood friends and his widow, Anita, and all of the author’s major achievements are also discussed. Thurman has done his research, and like every worthy documentarian, he knows where to sniff out the grit. The irony of many of his film’s bad-boy Hollywood line-up is not lost on Thurman either. “Many of the people I selected to participate in this, very few of them are poster children for the wellness center,” he jibes.

Thurman, a veteran of 10 original independent documentaries, among them films on Western icons Ben Johnson and Warren Oates, and rough-and-tumble directors Sam Peckinpah and John Ford, understands well the burden of living up to the tall-tale American icon, and how it can shadow and hound its creator. The inventor, purveyor, and keeper of the Gonzo flame was the latest, Doctor Hunter S. Thompson, a Baby Boomer hobgoblin outlaw, two-fisted drinking, drug-addled, gun-toting mad poet walking the dangerous line between the ghost of Hemingway and the shoulders of Paul Bunyan.

“Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride” is a brilliant film about a brilliant writer and an excellent primer into the life and times and art of Hunter S. Thompson. It is required viewing, but I think Mr. Thurman would like to join me in imploring the faithful to read the damn books.

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