Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood: The BBC’s 1978 Portrait of Hunter S. Thompson

“It’s been four years, maybe five,” mut­ters artist Ralph Stead­man as his flight descends into Col­orado. “I don’t know what the man has done since then. He may have ter­ri­ble brain dam­age.” He speaks of a famous col­lab­o­ra­tor, a writer whose ver­bal style the cul­ture has linked for­ev­er with Stead­man’s own visu­al style. “He has these mace guns and CO2 fire extin­guish­ers, which he usu­al­ly just aims at peo­ple,” Stead­man’s voiceover con­tin­ues, and we know this col­lab­o­ra­tor could be none oth­er than Hunter S. Thomp­son, the impul­sive, drug- and firearm-lov­ing chron­i­cler of an Amer­i­can Dream gone sour.  Many of Stead­man’s fans no doubt found their way into his blotchy and grotesque but nev­er­the­less pre­cise­ly observed artis­tic world in the pages of Thomp­son’s best-known book, 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — or in those of its fol­low-up Fear and Loathing on the Cam­paign Trail ’72, or along­side his “gonzo” ground-break­ing arti­cle “The Ken­tucky Der­by is Deca­dent and Depraved.” Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hol­ly­wood, the BBC Omnibus doc­u­men­tary above, finds the men reunit­ing in 1978 to take a jour­ney into the heart of, if not the Amer­i­can Dream, then at least the osten­si­ble Amer­i­can “Dream Fac­to­ry.”

As Stead­man’s British, mid­dle-aged stolid­ness may seem sur­pris­ing giv­en the out-and-out insan­i­ty some see in his imagery, so Thomp­son’s famous­ly errat­ic behav­ior belies his words’ sober (as it were) indict­ment of Amer­i­ca. He wrote of Thomas Jef­fer­son­’s belief in Amer­i­ca as “a chance to start again [ .. ] a fan­tas­tic mon­u­ment to all the best instincts of the human race.” But alas, “instead, we just moved in here and destroyed the place from coast to coast like killer snails.” We see him cruise the Vegas strip, suf­fer a fit of para­noia by Grau­man’s Chi­nese The­ater (though I myself react sim­i­lar­ly to Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard), and take a meet­ing about the film that may or may not have become Where the Buf­fa­lo Roam, which fea­tured Bill Mur­ray in the Thomp­son­ian per­sona. We see archival footage of Mur­ray help­ing Thomp­son out with his sar­don­ic “Re-elect Nixon in 1980” cam­paign. We even see Thomp­son have a hotel-room sit-down with Nixon’s White House Coun­sel John Dean, who tes­ti­fied against the Pres­i­dent in the Water­gate tri­al. Between these seg­ments, Thomp­son reflects on the wild, sub­stance-fueled per­sona he cre­at­ed, and how it had got­ten away from him even then: “I’m real­ly in the way, as a per­son. The myth has tak­en over.” But he always had an eye on the next phase: at the doc­u­men­tary’s end, he draws up plans for the memo­r­i­al mount and can­non that would, 27 years lat­er, fire his ash­es high into the air.

[NOTE: Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hol­ly­wood’s nar­ra­tor refers to Thomp­son as a for­mer Hel­l’s Angel. In fact, he only rode along­side the Hel­l’s Angels, col­lect­ing mate­r­i­al for the book Hel­l’s Angels: The Strange and Ter­ri­ble Saga of the Out­law Motor­cy­cle Gangs. Remain­ing a non-mem­ber all the while, he even bought a British bike to dis­tin­guish him­self from the Harley-David­son-ded­i­cat­ed gang.]

Look for Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hol­ly­wood in our col­lec­tion of Free Doc­u­men­taries Online, part of our col­lec­tion of 635 Free Movies Online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Crazy Nev­er Die: Hunter S. Thomp­son in Rare 1988 Doc­u­men­tary (NSFW)

Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary: a ‘Warped Casablan­ca’

Hunter S. Thomp­son Gets Con­front­ed by The Hell’s Angels

John­ny Depp Reads Let­ters from Hunter S. Thomp­son (NSFW)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Thanks for this, I’m a Stead­man and Thomp­son fan and have an orig­i­nal poster that adver­tised the pub­li­ca­tion of the Fear and Loathing book. You did­n’t men­tion in your piece but I must put a shout in for The Rum Diaries as one of Thomp­son best books. Or per­haps that’s just a per­son­al pref­er­ence.

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