Without a doubt, you have seen the work of Ralph Steadman before. His work has graced the cover of Rolling Stone (multiple times); he illustrated the books of Hunter S. Thompson, did the poster art for the British movie Withnail & I, even designed the labels for Colorado microbrewery Flying Dog. His paintings are as distinct as they come, and if Steadman suddenly chose to stop signing them, no one would be confused as to whose they were, but the world would be robbed of one fantastic signature.
Steadman is most known for the illustrations for Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and that alone is enough of a reason to devote a documentary to the man, but Steadman is much more than Hunter S. Thompson’s personal illustrator. Steadman is a consummate artist, a raconteur of the highest persuasion, and a general nut. Spending time with him seems like a hell of a lot of fun.
Directed by Charlie Paul, For No Good Reason is constructed from reflections and stories, all conceived from Steadman’s cottage studio, with Johnny Depp acting as interviewer and drinking buddy. Paul filmed the documentary over the course of several years, but he and editor, Joby Gee, produce a free-flowing conversation that feels like old friends catching up one rainy afternoon.
The highlight of For No Good Reason is watching Steadman paint—the miracle of creation born right before the viewer’s eyes. Steadman is open and revealing while discussing his process and shows us exactly how he builds a painting from the first few splotches of paint on the canvas to the final product. His technique is really quite simple, less than seven steps in his process, but the results are impressive. They are like images from his subconscious brought to life right there on the canvas. That might be why his work complemented Thompson so well. Neither seemed to filter their thoughts. They brought them forth, warts and all, for the whole world to see.
Steadman’s story is incredibly unique and quite lucky. A relatively unknown English cartoonist when he came to the states, his first job was to provide sketches and illustrations to accompany an article from Hunter S. Thompson for Scanlan’s Monthly on the running of the 1970 Kentucky Derby. Thompson had achieved a moderate amount of success as the author of Hell’s Angels, but nothing to the effect that he and Steadman would achieve together. “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” hit stands June 1970, and even if it was not widely read at the time, Thompson and Steadman both knew that they had found something together. As Steadman put it, “I met the one person I was supposed to meet in the whole world.”
Steadman and Thompson would continue to work closely together for the remainder of Thompson’s life (who died in Aspen in 2005). Thompson was a reckless and violent writer, and Steadman was the only one who could produce artwork that was as dangerous—if not more—as Thompson’s prose. Steadman’s images threatened to come to life at any second, leap off the page, and devour the reader whole. That is if Raoul Duke didn’t kill it first.
For No Good Reason is a documentary that doesn’t just inform; it entertains as well. It dazzles the eyes with both the beauty and violence of Steadman’s paintings but of Paul’s imagination. There seems to be a trend of documentaries that rely solely on the material they are dealing with and not the collision of light and shadow that makes cinema worth watching. If the subject matter is interesting, then the documentary is interesting (Blackfish, Inequality For All). If the subject matter is trite, then the doc is boring (The Armstrong Lie). All of them look like they were made for PBS. Since most of these documentaries will be seen either on television or streamed via Netflix and Hulu, I have a feeling that directors are tailoring their products for that exhibition. For No Good Reason stands out in that mix for looking like cinema. Watching For No Good Reason will inform you a great deal about Ralph Steadman, his career, and his relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, but it will also entertain you as well.
For No Good Reason (2012)
Directed by: Charlie Paul
Produced by: Lucy Paul
Starring: Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Gilliam, Richard E. Grant, Jann Werner, Hal Willner
Sony Pictures Classics, Rated R, Running time 89 minutes, Released April 25, 2014.