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.