If The Germs were a seminal L.A. punk band who truly informed the scene with their destructive energy and subversive lyrics, then “What We Do Is Secret” is a botched representation of their seismic impression. Striving to become the definitive word on an explosion of raw musical and philosophical energy, “Secret” is mostly about lukewarm actors playing dress up, walking around in punk heritage boots they can’t stand up straight in.
An intelligent child from a broken home, Jan Paul Beahm (Shane West) took off to the Hollywood punk scene, fueled on the teachings of Nietzsche and craving the chaos of the era. Beahm soon changed his name to Darby Crash and formed The Germs, a band proudly made up of musical amateurs such as Pat Smear (Rick Gonzalez) and Lorna Doom (Bijou Philips). Blending noise and verbal contortions, the band took the scene by storm, using guttural performances to build a name, yet alienating themselves from the important, career-making clubs. Unable to break through and change the world as he wanted to, Crash lost himself in the fog of hard drugs, eliminating the drive that brought him the small slice of fame he achieved.
I’m certain “Secret” will appeal to the average punk devotee. Director Rodger Grossman shows a lot of affection for the particulars of the era; a sweet spot in L.A. history as the west coast retaliated against the Brit punk explosion, co-opting their sneer and fascination with provocative Nazi imagery, but lending the genre a new spin of rage and distinct American commentary. Grossman pores over Crash and the fragments of his ill-fated leadership, showcasing The Germs with utmost adoration and interest in what made the band tick. Unfortunately, Grossman didn’t have much of a budget to conjure this specific era.
Grossman shoots much of “Secret” like a modern-day tale of excess instead of exploring Crash through past cinematographic technology, which would lend some credence to the rise and fall of The Germs. Too much of the movie is restrained by modern camera techniques and inappropriate sheen, which has the unfortunate side effect of revealing the actors as collection of slightly dazed mannequins, all dressed up in Hot Topic punk colors and left without the correct organic inspiration. The performances suffer, especially the lead work from West. While I can appreciate his effort to find his inner Crash through dental exaggerations and raucous stage demeanor, the acting doesn’t ring true for West, who reaches for a certain eloquent, demented snarl, but the camera catches his transparency in nearly every scene.
“Secret” hopes to cement Crash as an icon and godfather of punk, while only intermittently offering reasons while the average listener should care. The Germs as portrayed in “Secret” are petulant children with pedestrian stage ambition, with Crash their well-read, easily-distracted deity. The case for musical immortality is not made particularly well by Grossman, who spends more time following a well-worn music bio-pic structure than searching to unearth the critical lightning bolt of unwashed vitality that defined Crash’s cult legacy.