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Crash and burn

The calculated rise and fall of the Germs’ Darby Crash

Darby Crash had a troubled childhood. His mother was a negligent alcoholic, the man he thought was his biological father left the family, and his brother died of a drug overdose. Crash was a fan of nihilist philosophies – especially Nietszche. He dyed his hair blue to separate himself from his peers because he “wanted to experience what it would be like to be the only black kid at a white school.” That day, he says, he lost all his friends.

What We Do Is Secret, a posthumous biopic directed by Rodger Grossman, depicts the rise of Darby Crash (Shane West) as the frontman for the Germs, a band that emerged out of the late seventies punk rock scene in L.A. It is done in a faux-documentary style, with numerous fictional interviews throughout the film in order to give a variety of perspectives on the band and Crash’s mystifying persona. Often, the characters featured in interviews gave little insight, resorting mostly to clichés about the band.

The film follows a typical storyline in many ways, depicting a breakthrough artist’s rise to fame, followed by his descent into heavy drug use and general self-destruction. However, Crash’s many humourous antics give the film an often funny and light-hearted tone. At their disastrous first show, he dumps a bag of flour on a group of naysayers. Indeed, West manages to portray Crash’s human side in a way that allows the audience to understand the man inside this hardened, punk-rock exterior.

Central to Crash’s vision for the Germs is a “five-year plan” for attaining punk-rock infamy. His bizarre idea involves the recruitment of band members who aren’t actually musicians to play gigs, incite riots, fan the hype, and only then learn to play their musical instrument. However, Crash’s strategy is not entirely lacking in seriousness, and his character is made all the more compelling by his musical passion. For a pro-fascist, nihilist punk rock singer, he is certainly a careerist, announcing in one faux-interview that, “I have a very, very set idea of what I want to get done and how I’m going to do it. And I need people to help me do it.”

His band members are Lorna Doon, Pap Smear, and Don Bolle – all names Crash himself chose. Their relationship with him is often tumultuous; they switch roles from band-mates to concerned friends after Crash’s incessant drug use becomes a source of strife. Despite these tensions, he is often affectionate and appreciative of his band members for all their help in fulfilling his musical vision. This general authenticity is well displayed throughout the film and makes Crash genuinely likeable.

Yet despite these warm-hearted moments, the film is unable to get inside Crash’s tortured soul. There is scant attention paid to some of his more troubling characteristics, such as his incessant drug use, self-mutilation, sexual confusion, and his deliberate drug overdose after the band’s final show. His suicide, his desired ending for the five-year plan, perhaps, is overshadowed by the assassination of John Lennon. As Crash lays dying, his band members are watching news coverage of Lennon’s assassination; the final misfortune of Crash’s life – and his chance to become a musical icon – is snatched away by fate.