LOS ANGELES — Imagine a world without Green Day, Good Charlotte and My Chemical Romance, a world that never knew Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers or NOFX. Ill-fated punk pioneer Darby Crash may have called his band the Germs, but a buzz-heavy biopic is on its way to remind us that they gave birth to much more than death and disease.
"The Germs were one of the first punk-rock bands, a seminal band that helped create the whole Los Angeles punk scene in the mid- to late '70s," explained actor Shane West, giving a primer on "What We Do Is Secret." The flick has the "Walk to Remember" heartthrob undergoing a transformation that makes "Walk the Line" look like an "American Idol" audition. "Darby Crash was an Iggy Pop-esque character, in the sense that he demanded attention — he was very enigmatic onstage and just an amazing human being, really."
At the recent Los Angeles Film Festival, West and co-star Bijou Phillips ("Hostel: Part II") unveiled "Secret," a movie that took its rookie director, Rodger Grossman, nearly 15 years to complete. For their first-ever interviews, the three were joined by real-life Germ Lorna Doom to give a preview of the movie about a band that existed for less than four years, released just one album and was banned from virtually every club in L.A. but would influence dozens of major acts in the years that followed.
"The Germs were beyond influential," said Phillips, who portrays Doom, arguably the first female punk musician. "Kurt Cobain had [Germs guitarist] Pat Smear as the guitar player in [Nirvana], and the Foo Fighters had him in their band. The Germs basically influenced the entire grunge scene and are the catalysts for a lot of the music that we hold dear."
But before everyone gets too nostalgic, there's something else that the applause-happy crowd at the film's festival premiere would be the first to admit: The Germs were loud, obnoxious and questionably talented, and they possessed an uncanny knack for self-destruction. The 44 months of their turbulent union are depicted in the film as a downward spiral that culminated in Crash's suicide at the age of 22.
"I'm profoundly ambivalent about [his death], because in one sense, he was a sad and lonely boy who desperately needed love," Grossman said. "And the way he got that love was by killing himself so that he could be worshipped forever. In achieving his ultimate goal, you have to ask yourself: What is the victory there?"
West agreed that the more he became Crash for the flick, the more he realized that the rock-star mythos had ultimately consumed the man. "They all start with their own set of issues and their own set of problems," he said of rock stars. "And it's always, ultimately, that person's journey."
For the film, the young actors' journeys involved taking on their most unlikely roles yet: real-life punk rockers. "We rehearsed for a month and a half, two months, and then we went into the studio and recorded all the songs for the movie for two weeks," recalled Phillips. "At that point, I was playing bass all day long, every day. The calluses would come off in the shower. I'd be, like, chewing them off."
"Now she's just like the real Lorna," joked the real-life bassist, looking over at Phillips. "I was stunned [when I saw her performance], because it's the most surreal experience that you can possibly have. I thought, 'I wish I looked that good back then.' "
Good is hardly the word for how West looks by the end of the flick. He's tattooed, Mohawked, rail-thin and strung out, and while the performance demands to be seen, it is almost too vivid to watch.
"I sprained my ankle doing the 'Manimal' performance, when I tripped off the amp and landed on the ground," he said of his intense stage presence. "I had to do the 'Shut Down' performance later in the film with the sprained ankle, with a cast wrapped up in my boot and plenty of cuts and scratches — some real, some fake.
"I was pretty much in character 100 percent of the time," he continued. "Every day, when I drove to work, the Germs were always on the CD player over and over again. I woke up listening to [David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars], which was one of Darby Crash's favorite albums. I breathed and slept it for two years."
The flick depicts Darby's dream of his "five-year plan," from the day he and Smear (played by Rick Gonzalez from "Coach Carter" in an eye-opening performance) launched the group, to an aborted romance between Darby and Doom, to early concerts hurling blood, glass and flour all over the audience. Now West is continuing what Crash could not.
"Another surreal moment is watching someone portray your friend that you've known for so long and had that intense experience with for those years," Doom said of West, who is now on tour with the three original Germs (who also include drummer Don Bolles). "It's surreal to see him come out dressed as Darby and perform. He is doing an incredible job."
"That was not expected," West said of the gigs. "We booked a tour, and then we booked a couple of dates on the Warped Tour, and we played four shows last month."
While some fans (as well as punk luminaries such as Jello Biafra and Fat Mike) haven't welcomed the Hollywood star with open arms, he said he wouldn't have it any other way.
"That should be the case," he said of his detractors, most of whom haven't seen him perform. "It would be hard for anybody replacing anybody in a band, let alone this one and let alone such an iconic character who's also not around to speak his mind. For a band that hasn't played for 25 years to suddenly come back with an actor who has done different roles that people might know me by? That doesn't coincide with the punk-rock thing at all. So yeah, I've had to win them over."
The producers of "What We Do Is Secret" are currently in negotiations with distributors. A late 2007 or early 2008 release is possible.
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