What We Do Is Secret

Written and directed by Rodger Grossman. Rhino Films.

| November 13, 2008
'What We Do is Secret'
  • 'What We Do is Secret'

The power of myth. In many cases, the myth overshadows the reality. For the legendary L.A. punk band The Germs, who experienced a meteoric rise during the late 1970s, this was always the case. More often than not, Germs shows were chaotic episodes, with unfinished sets. In 1979, the Germs released their first and only full-length album, (GI), produced by Joan Jett, and received critical praise. But the record was met with poor sales. They grew and matured as a band in a few short years, with only a handful of fans that had truly seen them live. The Germs ended with the suicide of lead singer and lyricist Darby Crash in 1980. This seemed to cement the band's mythological status.

What We Do is Secret is an appropriate title for the recent biopic film of The Germs, directed and written by Rodger Grossman, a former assistant to B-movie king Roger Corman. It derives from one of the band's song titles, which became their anthem. Grossman attempts to lift the lid of this "secrecy," to reveal a behind-the-scenes look at the band and its charismatic singer. The cast, including ER heartthrob Shane West (who plays Crash) and Bijou Phillips (as bassist Lorna Doom), deliver apt performances, but there isn't enough story, script and atmosphere to bring authenticity in recreating the band's ethos.

The script often sounds as if it is a movie-made-for-TV or an updated "Afterschool Special." Shot in a pseudo-documentary style that fails to reveal anything new about the band, the film maintains a clean look, putting a sheen on its characters and fans and on the dank clubs of the time period. In contrast, Darby Crash was literally the poster boy for Penelope Spheeris' gritty documentary Decline of the Western Civilization, released in 1981, a year after Crash's death. Spheeris' milestone film (unfortunately not yet available on DVD) succeeded in capturing the lifestyle and culture of L.A.'s punk scene in The Germs' short era in a way that What We Do Is Secret does not.

Sadly, Crash's tragically romantic story is not atypical. Germs guitarist and co-founder Pat Smear can attest to that. In 1993, 11 years after Crash's death, Smear joined Nirvana, and just six months later he witnessed yet another self-destruction when that band's leader, Kurt Cobain, killed himself. Perhaps there isn't anything more to The Germs' story -- gaining a swell of cult popularity, a release of a blistering record and a tragic, early death of its gifted singer, ringleader and lyricist. What is not often spoken about, however, as illustrated in Decline of the Western Civilization, was the explosive creation of music that flourished out of nothing, despite the nihilism, desperation and, at the time, lack of recognition.

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