The year 1980 wasn't a great one for musicians in legendary bands. In May, Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis, distraught over his failing marriage and worsening epilepsy, committed suicide on the eve of his band's first American tour. Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died in September after a bout of heavy drinking. And, most notably, Mark David Chapman shot Beatles legend John Lennon on December 8.
Lennon's murder overshadowed the December 7 heroin overdose of Germs vocalist/co-founder Darby Crash. But the 22-year-old's death devastated the LA music scene. As one of the first punk bands in the city, the Germs evolved from a group that could barely play its instruments into an influential, fierce outfit. On its only studio album, (GI), the quartet unleashed speedball punk riffs, Crash's guttural, strangled vocals and literate, introspective lyrics. Germs shows featured sloppy onstage antics and incited riots, which led to most LA venues banning the band — even as its popularity soared up until its 1980 split.
It's a shame that the version of the Germs portrayed in the biopic What We Do Is Secret lacks the energy, controversy and intrigue of the real-life band. (This is somewhat surprising, considering that Crash portrayer Shane West has actually taken over as the vocalist of the reunited Germs in recent years.) In fact, Secret is a PG-13, almost-boring version of the late-'70s LA punk days. The film begins by touching on Crash's troubled childhood, before tracing how the boy born Jan Paul Beahm first formed a theoretical band with high school pal (and fellow Queen, Bowie and Runaways fan) Pat Smear (played by a genial Rick Gonzalez), rechristened himself Bobby Pyn and then Darby Crash — and steered the Germs to immortality.
West's performance is suitably intense; he grows more haggard, brooding and quietly desperate as the movie unfolds. But he's almost too pretty to channel the baby-faced, awkward Crash — and the complexities of his personality (the contrast between his violent onstage persona and his gentle nature, his fascination with philosophers and fascism) are never really developed in depth. Bandmates Lorna Doom (a perfectly cast Bijou Phillips), Smear and drummer Don Bolles (a hyperkinetic Noah Segan) are true to their personalities, if a little caricature-like, although insufferable Crash sycophant Amber (played shrilly by Missy Doty) and KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer (an earnest J.P. Manoux) are standouts.
Still, Secret glosses over the more salacious aspects of the band's history. Mundane events, such as Crash recording vocals for the Germs' Joan Jett-produced (GI), turn into dramatic conflicts imbued with deep meaning, while the band's nuances (its humor, for starters) are downplayed. Crash's oft-rumored same-sex predilection is reduced to a cheesy plot point. After a scene where future Germs drummer/crush object Rob Henley (Ashton Holmes) rebuffs his attempted kiss, Crash retreats to the bathroom and looks forlornly in the mirror — until Henley comes up behind him and says, "I don't want you to hate me!"
The band's December 1980 reunion gig is just as romanticized. Though Secret portrays it as a feel-good, "getting the band back together!" scenario (and in reality was considered one of the Germs' best shows), Crash's desire for heroin was rumored to be the true motivator. But sappy onstage banter, Smear and Doom's fresh-faced, jaunty stage presence and cadre of worshipful fans make it out to be an unqualified triumph.
The movie takes liberties with other facts as well. For instance, future Go-Go's vocalist Belinda Carlisle, the original Germs drummer, didn't quit the band because of stage fright; she developed mono and had to leave. And while members of UK punks the Damned did heckle the Germs at its first gig, the show reportedly featured excessive drinking, Crash wrapped in strips of red licorice and abstract feedback and noise — the opposite of the tame, off-key scene it is in Secret.
And that's the main problem with the movie. There was nothing pretty about heroin, about the heavy drug use and dirt of the LA punk scene — or its music, venues and fans. In fact, this era was often brutal. But Secret's version of Darby Crash is sanitized, a Hollywood-ized tortured artist jammed into a too-neat, clichéd narrative arc — instead of a multidimensional person attempting to reconcile his inner demons.