Johnny Depp’s appearance throughout a new documentary portrait of the British artist and illustrator Ralph Steadman is unnecessary, though appropriate given the film’s title, “For No Good Reason.” Depp’s presence on camera — less as legitimate interviewer than as a slightly sycophantic observer — seems calculated to lend hipster cachet to the biography, but little else.
Steadman, however, seems to be doing just fine on his own. Well into his 70s, the artist best known for his magazine collaborations in the 1970s with the late writer Hunter S. Thompson is still making art that has the capacity to delight and, at times, to shock. It’s fun to watch Steadman create his signature style of ink drawings: unflattering caricatures characterized by seemingly random splashes of black and red ink — sometimes blown through a straw — that give the work a violent, unpredictable energy. Occasional animations supplement these scenes of the artist at work.
The rest of the film, by Charlie Paul, features Steadman reminiscing about his career, which took off with a 1970 assignment to cover the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s monthly. Thompson, the writer on that project, would go on to work with Steadman again and again, most notably for Rolling Stone magazine, where the two collaborated on the serialized article “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1971), among several other pieces. Depp famously played Thompson’s alter ego, Raoul Duke, in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaptation of “Las Vegas,” which I guess explains his presence. Gilliam also appears briefly in the documentary, as does actor Richard E. Grant, whose breakout role was in the 1987 film “Withnail and I,” for which Steadman created the poster art.
Like Depp’s contribution, which lends the film the feeling of a random tea-time visit, these talking-head appearances are a mite extraneous. “For No Good Reason” rambles too much for its own good, compared to more traditional documentaries.
The most rewarding parts of the film feature Steadman simply talking about his influences (Picasso, among others) and his youthful goal of changing the world through art. Though Steadman created many anti-war images in his day, he admits that, at his advanced age, he sometimes feels “slightly meaningless.”
Those who know Steadman only through his art, which sometimes resembles the output of a wild man, might be surprised to learn that he’s always been a pretty staid guy. Given his long association with Thompson, a celebrated drinker and drug user who committed suicide in 2005, the revelation of Steadman’s (relative) sobriety is the film’s biggest bombshell. Steadman says that he and Thompson were as different as “chalk and cheese.”
Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner, however, says that, of the two men, Steadman was far crazier than Thompson and more willing to take a chance. You certainly don’t see that trait in his personal life, which seems quietly predictable these days.
But that risk-taking comes across in his art. Fortunately, there’s plenty of it in “For No Good Reason.” It may not have changed the world, but for fans of Steadman’s work, it’s reason enough to see the film.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains crude language, drug content and sexual imagery.