The Germs are one of those bands that are very hard to view with critical detachment. Some see Darby Crash as the purest embodiment of the live fast, die young mantra, and hence, a Christ-like figure to be worshiped. Others see him as a perfect example of youthful stupidity, a miscreant who read some Nietzsche and figured himself a rock star and ended up killing himself just to make a point (idiot).
It’s not easy to strike a balance between these two poles, and to What We Do Is Secret’s credit, it fully acknowledges the devil in the details. It’s an uneven mess of a film, one that overemphasizes certain parts of the band’s whirlwind ride and overlooks others, but if a film about the Germs was perfect, it wouldn’t do a very good job of capturing the Germs, would it?
In comparisons to other recent punk films, What We Do Is Secret stands up relatively favorably. Unlike Control, it mixes the fun with the gloom and doom. Unlike American Hardcore, it can actually make substantial points while still feeling punk. While the film’s technically a biopic, it more closely resembles the structure of Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten in its loud/fast presentation style and intermittent interviews with former band members (or actors playing them). Like Strummer, Crash’s rock star image was meticulously crafted with a precision that’s distinctly non-punk. Crash (real life Jan Paul Beahm) knew where the band was going before anyone else. Everything from the band’s notoriety, breakup, one-off reunion and Crash’s own suicide were, to borrow a phrase from Heath Ledger’s Joker, all part of the plan (like Ledger’s Joker, Crash's anarchism was heavily influenced by Johnny Rotten).
The film is smart enough to show us how it wasn’t easy being Darby Crash. The contradictions of his mission — being wild and crazy but playing disciplined music, not giving a fuck but still caring about your legacy, doing your own thing but still depending on others — is all in play in the film. But the film has a tendency to get too mushy in playing up Crash’s failed homosexual affair with Rob Henley (here the film combines Henley and real-life Crash confidant Donnie Rose). It seems that addressing Darby’s latent homosexuality is so racy to writer/director Rodger Grossman that it needed to be covered extensively. Overplaying homosexual romance for shock factor hasn’t worked in past biopics (Monster, Velvet Goldmine), and it doesn’t work here.
The acting is pretty inconsistent. Watching rival band managers Amber (Missy Doty) and Chris Ashford (Keir O’Donnell) square off for attention is a frankly embarrassing display of acting chops. But the key performance, of course, is Shane West as Crash, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t give one of the most convincing American punk performances ever set to celluloid. West, who plays a misplaced rock star doctor on E.R., won’t let you take your eyes off him, just like every punk frontman from Iggy Pop to Kurt Cobain. From West’s performance, you can see how Crash provided immediate influences to Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra. It’s no surprise the Germs have reformed with West in Crash’s place.
Of course, Crash couldn’t anticipate what would eventually ruin his Five Year Plan — he got upstaged by a bigger rock star. The day after Crash killed himself, John Lennon was murdered. The Germs may have wanted to be bigger than the Beatles, but the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. The most cringe-worthy directorial decision has Crash assuming a Christ pose as he falls to the floor from his fatal heroin overdose. It’s ridiculous and overdone, but no doubt some punks take the image literally.
A film as willfully abrasive as What We Do Is Secret certainly gets the punk attitude in style. But unlike recent loud/fast punk films, it doesn’t feel incomplete either. Even the crudest of hardcore bands need some substance to be a success. What We Do Is Secret is an imperfect, wild, and foolhardy attempt to capture an oft-forgotten band in their brief, nihilistic glory. So basically, it succeeds.
What We Do is Secret, written and directed by Rodger Grossman; director of photography, Andrew Huebscher; edited by Ross Albert and Joel Platch; produced by Matt Perniciaro, Kevin Mann, Rodger Grossman, Todd Traina and, Stephen Nemeth; music supervision by Howard Paar; starring Shane West (Darby Crash), Rick Gonzalez (Pat Smear), Bijou Phillips (Lorna Doom), Noah Segan (Don Bolles), Tina Majorino (Michelle), Katherine Leonard (Jena), Ashton Holmes (Rob Henley), Keir O'Donnell (Chris Ashford), Lauren German (Belinda), Sebastian Roche (Claude "Kickboy Face" Bessey), Azura Skye (Casey Cola), and Missy Doty (Amber). Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Rated R.