Secret? Not anymore it ain’t. In my day, you had to visit a dozen Blockbusters to find a ratty copy of The Decline of Western Civilization—now, the story of Darby Crash and the Germs has been pruned into the same formulaic Great Man narrative you’d expect to see applied to, say, Babe Ruth.
Crash, frontman of one of SoCal’s more enduring punk acts, was a self-immolating, conflicted queer in a scene whose attitude toward the gay stuff was ambivalent at best. In his book Enter Naomi, author Joe Carducci was clearly talking about the Germs clique when he wrote that Hollywood rock’s tone “was set by show-biz pedophiles grabbing after faghags-in-denial chasing reluctant homosexuals back into the closet”—an analysis about a zillion times smarter than Secret‘s formulaic treatment.
Combining the stereotyped feeling of a hundred indie coming-out dramas with an insight into intra-band politics worthy of a VH1 pundit, the long-rumored Secret—apparently at one point, David Arquette was attached to play Crash and Larry Clark to direct—is the product of first-time writer/director Rodger Grossman, who says he worked on this project for over 10 years. His version of the Germs’ story sounds almost verbatim like the far superior 2002 oral history Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs (AK Press) by Adam Parfrey, Brendan Mullen (booker of legendary venue the Masque and depicted in the film by Ray Park), and ex-Germ Don Bolles; Secret‘s script could’ve been (clumsily) distilled from a highlighted copy. In a Swindle magazine piece, Grossman claims to have collaborated on the book, but he’s conspicuously absent from Lexicon Devil ‘s acknowledgments, and the book gets no screenplay credit in his movie. Also, Mullen had apparently been on board for the film, but per the Los Angeles Times, he and Grossman “part[ed] company when they differed over the project’s direction.”
Likely Mullen smelled the inevitable. As Crash, Shane West, whose “interview” monologues convey zilch of the frontman’s prophetic cult-of-personality stature, is at least a physically credible puzzled panther onstage—a fact appreciated by the surviving Germs, who actually borrowed the actor to “play” Crash (who killed himself in 1980) through their first actual tour. As bassist Lorna Doom, Bijou Phillips looks cute in punky threads. End merits.
Lexicon Devil gave readers a sense not only of Crash, but of the center-will-not-hold ’70s L.A. that he grab-bagged his persona out of (one of the stranger-than-fiction passages, his laissez-faire education at a Scientology-tinged “Innovative Program School,” is completely glossed over in the movie). What We Do Is Secret is totally hermetic: With a crack crew of set dressers, the entire thing could’ve been shot in a studio apartment. The London of Crash’s fashion-finding trip is identified by putting West in a red UK telephone box.
The worst kind of bastard adaptation, Secret subtracts without adding. Characters recite Crash’s lyrics with scriptural reverence, but with no other clues, we’ll have to trust the readers’ proclamations of his “genius.” What’s not on-screen is the covert thrill of teenage self-invention, with all its lures and traps, promised by the title (from a Germs tune). That’s what kept the Germs armbands circulating on a generation of weird kids, despite media indifference and cultural amnesia—and much of the reason that Darby Crash’s story bears telling.