Standing in the line, we’re aberrations,
Defects in a defect’s mirror.
— Darby Crash, “What We Do is Secret”
“Everything works in circles,” asserts Darby Crash (Shane West). “Like, sometimes you’re doing something and a year later you’re back at the same point. So right now, we’re doing circle one. Someday we’ll probably do circle two.”
Or someday, we’ll be doing circle one again.
As Darby explains this complex facet of his philosophy to Slash magazine reporter Kickboy Bessy (Sebastian Roché), he appears in black-and-white. This suggests not only that it’s 1979, but also that this is a reenactment of an archival moment, an interview with which the real Crash (born Jan Paul Beahm in Los Angeles, 1958). The Germs inventor and frontman leans toward the camera, earnest and stoned, insisting on his rightness and wisdom. The faux interview preserves his self-image, the reenactment in What We Do Is Secret remembers the preservation.
Rodger Grossman’s film is sometimes fascinating for this very circularity. Whether West’s cunning performance is like Crash’s own, or whether the movie’s recollections are accurate is almost beside the point. What matters in watching the film is how such gestures challenge the institution of rock-stardom. As Bowie fan Crash and Crash fan Kurt Cobain well knew, the conventions of celebrity shape expectations and possibilities. Efforts — especially genuine efforts — to resist that perpetual show are both inspired and doomed.
Crash’s notoriety is partly premised on his demise, his deliberate heroin overdose at age 22. Repeatedly in the film he extols his “five-year plan” for stardom, instigated by his own faith in the model set by David Bowie. That the plan doesn’t precisely look out for his bandmates — legendary guitarist Pat Smear (Rich Gonzalez), bassist Lorna Doom (the enduring Bijou Phillips), and drummer Don Bolles (Noah Segan) (so smitten by the Germs that he drives out from Phoenix to offer his services) — is both predictable and lamentable. The movie’s Crash is a self-described fascist (but not a Nazi, because “There’s a difference, you know: like, I can respect Hitler for being a genius, but not for killing off all those innocent people”), but also vulnerable and terminally sad. His performances are calculated as well as creepy and childish. He tells his interviewer that in high school, he and his misfit buddies “would carry around copies of Helter Skelter and put Xes on our heads,” knowing then and now that his audience will be revolted and mesmerized.
Drawing from Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs, an oral history by Bolles, Masque book Brendan Mullen (played here by a badly wigged Ray Park), and publisher Adam Parfrey, the movie is episodic and, perhaps appropriately, offers only glances at Crash’s emotional life. Today, he may be as well known for when he died as for how: the day after he shot up for the last time in a friend’s parents’ pool house, John Lennon was killed outside the Dakota. In What We Do is Secret, this odd collision of events is turned into cross-cut scenes of loss: as Pat watches the TV reports on Lennon, Lorna calls to tell him of their more immediate loss. She weeps, he stands with mouth agape. Unconvincing and performative in their own rights, these responses emphasize What We Do is Secret‘s understanding of celebrity’s incessant soul-sapping.
These responses also underscore the odd and exquisite built-in irony of the film’s title. Crash’s self-abuse on stage — he cuts his chest, Sid-Vicious-style, he fights, falls, and trades obscenities with his angry, adoring audience (“Cut yourself!” they yell out as they slam into one another) — obviously denotes a personal pain. Such clichés structure the film (and, arguably, Crash’s brief life). He’s beloved by girl groupies and in love with a surfer named Robbie (Ashton Holmes). (The film doesn’t attend to punk’s homophobia during this period or Crash’s ensuing depression.) The band quickly becomes famous for destroying clubs, making it impossible for them to get gigs. Their one album, 1979’s GI, is hailed as brilliant and innovative (in the film, they read aloud reviews, per formula), but they’re already dissolving.
The film doesn’t shed light on Crash’s story so much as it repeats it, its circular shape at once apt and disappointing. When Penelope Spheeris (Michele Hicks) plants herself in front of Crash and declares she wants to include the Germs in The Decline of Western Civilization, you know it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be on a stage, she’ll be pointing her camera, and What We Do is Secret will be including images emulating hers. Her film — which features as well members of X, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and Catholic Discipline — remains a powerful document of the scene and its participants, bandmembers and fans alike.
Crash’s speech here, to a final club audience, suggests early punk’s raucous intimacy between performer and consumer. “I want the people that care, that care what it was like, that admit something to be inside of here,” he says. “I want to play for you and you can come up here and you can play with us and we will make it like it was.” Circular, again.