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Gonzo, Hunter Thompson and the Writer

Fear and loathing is a choice.

I went to see Gonzo recently, the new documentary based on the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson, the father of gonzo journalism. Johnny Depp read aloud the words by Thompson featured in the film, just as he had acted them in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and interviews with the likes of Robert Love (editor of the magazine, Rolling Stone), Jimmy Carter and Ralph Steadman, as well as with his son and ex-wives, made Gonzo a steady, credible documentary that explores the man and the myth with guts and humour.

We get to see footage of Hunter as a brash young journalist arguing with Hell’s Angels who didn’t appreciate his book about them that propelled him to fame, Hunter running for Sheriff in Aspen and Hunter on the political scene as he mercilessly covered the 1972 political campaign. We learn about the edge that he brought to journalism and what kind of a difference his words made to a generation.


Hunter S. Thompson is the god of many freelance writers. He was one of the first journalists to snarl and swear on the page and cover events from deep inside the heart of the experience. Inventing the term gonzo for his subjective, madcap, firebrand writing, he established a whole new genre. He turned the worlds of those around him upside down, as when he turned on his illustrator Ralph Steadman to psyolicibin and became a cult hero.

Thompson’s legacy lives on today in a generation of freaks who have a laptop, an adventurous spirit and, hopefully, something to say. Along with homage to the likes of Kerouac and Ginsberg who pushed the literary boundaries in the 50’s, Thompson is firmly at home in the gonzo freelance pantheon, perhaps with Charles Bukowski sitting somewhere nearby.

Just like the Elvis clones and the Bob Dylan lool-a-likes, there are even Hunter Thompson freaks who emulate the slightly gorky dress sense, taste in weird cocktails and a drunken, self-righteous unaccountability. Swear once every sentence, spoken or written, act flamboyant, burn all bridges around you and never look back because anyway that’s the heart of the America Dream.

It’s also a little unoriginal.

Hunter Thompson was an inspiration to us all and burnt his own path through the shit that surrounded him, loyal only to his own dogged set of values. But as Gonzo quite effectively shows, he became a prisoner of his own personality, of the image he’d raised around himself. Unable to breathe amid the myth of the wild journalist he’d woven around himself, his writing began to falter and he ended up a grumpy old man cut off from the changing times.

There’s a definite lesson in Gonzo‘s honest portrait of Thompson’s life; he broke new ground and challenged the status quo, inspiring those who came after him to follow his example – but whatever mask we choose to wear to play a role we’re still human beneath. Hold a face for too long and the wind just might change and leave you that way forever.

Gonzo: the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson

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