The problem with rock 'n' roll biopics is that they all tell the same story. The early enthusiasm, the big break, the hits, simulated or lip-synched. Then the arrogance and alcohol and drugs and loose women, followed by (A) penitence and comeback or (B) the fatal speedball and pop martyrdom. These are stations of a post-Elvis cross, and for the cliches to have meaning either you have to be a hardcore fan or the director has to be an artist.
"What We Do Is Secret," about the pioneering Los Angeles punk band the Germs, is one for the fans, even though writer-director Rodger Grossman and co-writer Michelle Baer Ghaffari labor mightily to spin it into something larger. Dramatizing the group's existence from 1975 through 1980 with good-looking young actors and clever camerawork, the film manages to slickly stylize a gritty subject. But that's OK: This is LA, and Germs leader Darby Crash knew image was everything.
Crash (born Jan Paul Beahm and played in the film by actor Shane West) was a snaggle-toothed brat with a gift for lyrics and incendiary public theater. He owed a lot to David Bowie (which the movie makes clear) and even more to Jim Morrison (who it only nods to in passing). He also instinctively understood one of punk's central tenets, which is that you're a star if you say you're a star, no talent or musical skill necessary.
The great punk bands developed skill, of course, except for the Sex Pistols, who imploded as a matter of commitment. Crash consciously modeled himself after both Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious - the snarling theorist and the chest-slicing example - with the result that being doomed was part of his act. Taking his cue from a Bowie song, he gave himself five years. It was a hell of a pose, even if he kept his end of the bargain.
Crash also had a genius for punk names, so he rechristened his best friends Lorna Doom (Bijou Phillips) and Pat Smear (Rick Gonzalez, super-likable), the former the Germs' bass player, and the latter a propulsive guitarist who'd go on to play with Nirvana and Foo Fighters. With a doofus heavy-metal drummer named Don Bolles, the band scandalized the notoriously hard-to-shock LA underground with concerts that regularly devolved into riots. At the peak of their career, they were banned from every club in the city.
And that, suggests "What We Do Is Secret," is what Crash was best at: anarchy in the USA. For some people, that was enough. The movie's interestingly attentive to the way that needy, creepy hangers-on attach themselves to the famous: a sad-faced boy named Robbie (Ashton Holmes) and a doughy crazy lady (Missy Doty) both exert a weird, puppetmaster pull on Crash as he rolls down that old heroin highway.
West, too, is very good at conveying the skanky charisma of the man, and the flickering intelligence behind Crash's I-love-fascism bravado. (In fact, West has joined the surviving members of the Germs on a recent tour, yowling Darby's old songs.) The final scenes of "What We Do Is Secret" track a slow, ugly downfall, just like all the other rock bios do, with one slight difference: Darby Crash mostly wanted fame. When he got some, it didn't help a bit.
He didn't even get the exit he wanted. The night of the singer's intentional overdose was the same night John Lennon was shot to death in Manhattan, and that's all the evening news can talk about. The film tries to borrow that tragedy and turn it into dramatic irony, but it only calls attention to how much Lennon achieved with his life and how little beyond hardcore legacy Crash achieved with his.