What We Do Is Secret–Germs Biopic Officially Released

WWDISThe thirty year cycle has come full “circle,” as it were, and ground-breaking annoyance-punkers The Germs finally have their own bio-drama, replete with some serious drama about the making of the movie itself.  The film, What We Do Is Secret, which spans the tail-end of the seventies to singer Darby Crash’s suicide in 1980, took roughly fifteen years for first-time director Rodger Grossman to complete.  This M*A*S*H* of a movie dwarfed the reign of the Germs themselves in terms of longevity, money and celebrity (not counting Pat Smear’s stint in Nirvana and the Foo Fighters years later).  And in many ways, Grossman’s struggle to put the Germs on the big screen was fought harder than the Germs’ own struggles to find stages to play on during their legendary heyday.

Grossman’s labor of love was nearly stillborn many times, his money repeatedly running out, and distribution deals constantly eluding him.  Eventually, in lieu of an official film release, actor Shane West, who played Crash in the biopic after David Arquette dropped out, started touring with original Germs guitarist Pat Smear, drummer Don Bolles, and bassist Lorna Doom at various Warped Tour type activities.  There were annoying appearances by co-star Bijou Phillips in dreary Nylon TV interviews, and articles about the unfinished film in various alternative press publications, and a couple film festival screenings, but no official release for the Film That Wouldn’t Die.

Well, finally What We Do Is Secret is out in theaters, sorta.  And it’s almost a letdown that the film is fairly good.  A loving and detailed portrayal of an unfairly neglected musical era, this is certainly a better freshman debut than, say, Clerks, and a more honest and believable film than The Doors or The Buddy Holly Story.    Though some critics have lambasted it for being too literal and linear—it starts with the formation of the Germs as high school kids in Alice Cooper make-up and follows the band’s progress episodically until the death of Darby Crash—there’s also something about the story-arc that’s familiar to anyone who’s been in a band or just worshipped a few. What We Do Is Secret’s warts-and-all expose of the Germs’ phenomenon speaks universal truths about music and the misguided fool-geniuses who try to change the world with it.

Some Germs fans will undoubtedly complain that the film’s Hollywood actors, fed on ego and craft services, could never capture the impoverished spirit of make-it-or-break-it punk desperation the Germs embodied.  But what’s surprising is how well all the actors pulled it off, and how dedicated they were to their cause.  Besides all sticking with Grossman for years, West had prosthetic teeth made to look more like Crash’s mangled maw.  The band practiced constantly, teaching themselves how to play as well as the Germs ever did, by Pat Smear’s own admission.  They came back for more pick-up shots time and again each time they got more funding, and they all became friends with the remaining Germs themselves, who eventually all started hanging around the sets just for the sheer joy of seeing the best and worst moments of their lives reenacted by a cast of hundreds.

And not just the Germs, but many of their old friends got to relive those hallowed days of yesteryear.  A slo-mo journey through the crowd scenes of this film reveals several cameos by Los Angeles luminaries, including Pat Fear (White Flag) as a riot cop bashing punkers with a baton, Janet Housden (Redd Kross) as a hippie onlooker, and Don Bolles himself wearing a mask and playing the drummer of Vox Pop behind the cherubic incarnation of his younger self.  And there are fresh-faced appearances by relatively modern L.A. scenesters.  In an early scene only perhaps rivaled by Yo La Tengo’s appearance as the Velvet Underground in I Shot Andy Warhol, a resplendent Mae Shi perform “Sex Boy” at the Masque as the Screamers, with Rich Bitch of New Collapse playing the role of Screamers’ front man Tomata Du Plenty.

When a community comes together to rally around a film, it’s hard for any resident to stay objective.  Perhaps other towns and other reviewers might find more delight in calling out Grossman for the many flaws in his script—not the least of which is how little we see of Crash’s closeted gaydom, one of many themes a stronger dramatic conflict could have hinged upon.  For me, though, and for almost any Angeleno who lived or loved the late seventies punk scene, What We Do Is Secret is a love-letter to the Germs that we all should co-sign.

A Film By Rodger Grossman
Starring Shane West, Bijou Phillips, Rick Gonzalez & Noah Segan
Nuart Theater
Through Thursday, 8/28