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Arts & Culture

What We Do is Secret

Shane West as The Germs' Darby Crash (Vitagraph Films)

Grossman begins his film in fake documentary style with an interview with Darby (Shane West). This proves a fast and efficient way to introduce Darby and his punky attitude to the audience. Darby confesses to be a fascist but claims he's no Nazi and didn't really approve of Hitler killing all those people. He places his band the Germs in a punk context, letting us know that he doesn't really go for the same kind of politics and social criticism of the Brit band The Sex Pistols. From this intro we move back in time to see a younger Darby (born Jan Paul Beahm) drafting his friend Pat Smear (Rick Gonzales) to form a band. He also came up with the idea that they should draft a couple of girl members but they should have no talent and not be able to play an instrument. He then proposes a five-year plan -- for either world domination, punk fame, or time on earth - in quick succession manages to become a punk sensation (notorious for self-mutilation on stage), then banned from performing in clubs and then dead from a drug overdose at 22.

For a film about punk music and an untamed spirit, What We Do is Secret delivers a fairly formula music biopic. Although Darby claimed to be a fascist, he really comes across more as an anarchist but the film about his life has little sense of that anarchy in its style. Sure Grossman goes all over the map as he chronicles the band. But the occasional stylistic flourishes depicting L.A.'s punk scene in the late 70s and 80s cannot mask the rather mundane plotting of the script. The band members are always talking to each other in that very self-conscious way about what they are doing be it breaking the rules in the music world or dealing with the clich es of drugs and musicians.


Grossman also makes the mistake of having Penelope Spheeris appear as a character in the film. Spheeris (played by Michele Hicks in the film) was the filmmaker who chronicled the punk scene in the film The Decline of Western Civilization . So to reference a film that covers similar ground but in a better way is almost inviting criticism. Spheeris got to work with the real punk rockers not actors playing them so to bring her into the picture pulls us out of Grossman's film and makes us more aware of the shortcomings of his faux documentary footage.

As a narrative film, What We Do is Secret comes up short with its flaws standing out in bold relief compared to the recently released music bio of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, Control . Control , shot in moody black and white, focused squarely on Curtis' life and found a sense of intimacy and detail that gave the formula a fresh spin. But with What We Do is Secret , we don't feel that sense of intimacy or exacting detail to enliven the familiar elements of the music biography.

What We Do Is Secret (Vitagraph Films)

What We Do is Secret (rated R for drug use, language and brief sexuality) offers a window onto a small section of the punk scene. It sparks interest but never finds a way to invest its material with the same energy as its lead subject. In the end this is far too conventional a biography of someone who so desperately wanted to make his mark as being different. This punk scene has been better documented in The Decline of Western Civilization and The Filth and the Fury (specifically focusing on The Sex Pistols), and fictionalized to better effect in films such as Sid and Nancy .


Companion viewing: The Decline of Western Civilization, The Filth and the Fury, Sid and Nancy, Control, Brothers of the Head