For No Good Reason, the new documentary on the visual artist Ralph Steadman, is long overdue. In the minds of fans of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Steadman’s ink-splotch grotesqueries remain more or less cemented into the work of writer Hunter S. Thompson, with whom Steadman had a close friendship as well as working relationship for 35 years, until Thompson’s death in 2005. But Steadman has his own career separate from that of his Gonzo comrade, and director Charlie Paul’s admiring doc helps bring that to light.
Steadman was already a successful commercial illustrator — check his illo for the jacket of The Who’s vinyl single “Happy Jack” — when he first met Thompson in 1970, on assignment for a Scanlan’s magazine piece on the Kentucky Derby. A long association with Rolling Stone and many book gigs followed. His and Thompson’s descents into the dark innards of America went hand-in-hand with Steadman’s realization that the Vietnam War era was a mother lode of graphic hideousness there for the capturing.
Surprisingly, Steadman swears he never took drugs on those dope-fueled road trips. His chemical of choice was 951 Black India ink, on heavy cartridge paper. That’s how the monstrous sheriffs and harpyish waitresses in Thompson’s dispatches took form along the lines of Steadman’s influences: Francis Bacon, Rembrandt, Picasso, et al. Richard Nixon was his perfect subject. The Liverpool-born artist remembers: “America was where all that was going wrong with the world was being nurtured.”
Steadman’s early preoccupation with madness and violence did not preclude his later works on wine and wineries, nor a book on Leonardo da Vinci, but from the evidence of his illustrations of George Orwell and his collaborations with William S. Burroughs and music producer Hal Willner, Steadman expressed his disgust and fascination with the worst excesses of human nature with a peculiar vengeance. Thompson’s demise meant “the death of fun” for Steadman. Still, the presence of Gonzo acolyte Johnny Depp as the doc’s narrator/interlocutor is there to remind us of the good old days, as are talking heads Terry Gilliam and Richard E. Grant. For No Good Reason is a rewarding way to kill an afternoon with a lovable eccentric.