Distilled to its purest essence, “What We Do Is Secret” is a docudrama with the production qualities of a made-for-MTV movie about a band that recorded one album and never managed to finish a gig and whose lead singer was a fascist poseur.
Shane West stars as Darby Crash, the lead screecher of a seminal L.A. punk band, the Germs. At least, I think he was a seminal figure. The most prominent of this film’s flaws is a total lack of context. We’re in Los Angeles, it’s sometime in the late ‘70s, and that’s about all we know.
For a person steeped in punk’s history, that might be enough; for everyone else, it’s not even close. What was the L.A. scene like in the late ‘70s? How did it compare to New York City? What about London? Why were the Germs so integral to the development of L.A. punk?
The film’s director-writer, Rodger Grossman, might argue that those questions are beside the point, that this film is simply the story of one man’s rise and fall. That would be fair, except that Darby Crash isn’t a terribly interesting figure.
Mr. Grossman strains to give him deeper significance - we learn early on that Mr. Crash, nee Jan Paul Beahm, was some kind of genius as a child - a Nietzsche-reading, philosophy-spewing little hellion who was kicked out of school.
At the end of the film, we find out that he killed himself on the same day John Lennon was shot. Scenes of his overdose are interwoven with his band mates finding out about Mark David Chapman’s horrific deed. As the heroin courses through Darby’s veins, he falls to the ground with arms outstretched, yet another Christ figure sacrificed to the uncaring masses.
Oh, the symbolism!
Mr. West struggles to imbue Darby with the manic, magnetic energy that must have made him such a compelling figure to Los Angeles’ disaffected youth. He fails to pull it off; we simply have to take for granted the idea that this man of mediocre musical talent was able to inspire legions of fans.
Willing suspension of disbelief goes only so far.
It’s too bad the lead actor can’t hold his own, because the supporting cast is quite good. Bijou Phillips plays bassist Lorna Doom with an unrequited longing for Darby that is quite touching, and Rick Gonzalez excels as the Germs’ guitarist, Pat Smear. Both actors make you believe Mr. Crash was a figure worth following, despite the fact that Mr. West fails to hold up his end of the acting bargain.
There is an interesting film in here somewhere about the intersection of punk, the cult of personality and fascism. Those who look back on punk with fondness might get a kick out of “What We Do Is Secret.” The rest of the audience will simply be lost.
TITLE: “What We Do Is Secret”
RATED: R for drug use, language and brief sexuality
CREDITS: Written and directed by Rodger Grossman
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
WEB SITE: https://www.whatwedoissecretthemovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS