May 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'For No Good Reason' glimpses into Ralph Steadman's artistic process

Rolling Stone hired English artist Ralph Steadman to illustrate articles by Hunter S. Thompson. (Sony Pictures Classics)

There is rage in Ralph Steadman.

That was pretty easy to see in the splattered, hallucinatory illustrations he drew for decades to accompany the rant-writings of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Steadman, a mild-mannered English bloke who apparently never did drugs, was sort of Rolling Stone magazine’s madman illustrator of injustice in the ’70s, and his nightmare drawings became a counterculture staple.

Thompson committed suicide at the age of 67 in 2005 and his ashes were, per his request, blown out of a cannon by his friend Johnny Depp at a memorial service. Depp, who played Thompson in 1998’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” has become the unofficial keeper of the writer’s flame.

In an effort to keep that flame going, or at least lend some perspective to it, he appears in “For No Good Reason,” a documentary about Steadman mostly filmed at the artist’s estate.

And make no mistake, Steadman is very much an artist. Although Thompson’s production waned after the ’70s, “For No Good Reason” makes it perfectly clear that Steadman’s work is still vital and downright startling.

The best parts of the film simply follow the artist at work, throwing splotches of ink on paper, discovering form within those splotches, developing that form into eye-popping images through a variety of techniques. Steadman’s many politically themed drawings show he can work with purpose, but he’s most amazing when he’s simply discovering something hidden in the ink before him.

Steadman was already a groundbreaking, highly stylized cartoonist in Great Britain when he received a call asking him to accompany Thompson, whom he didn’t know, to the Kentucky Derby. It’s clear from his pre-Thompson work that the man already had a strong anti-establishment anger thing going; Thompson just gave him someone to be angry with.

As wonderful as it is to watch the man work, and to review many of the startling images he created over the years, the film has its dead spots. For one thing, we learn almost nothing about Steadman’s background or private life; aside from some schoolboy punishment, the roots of his rage remain a mystery.

And the film spends too much time tying Steadman to Thompson. Apparently they had a tumultuous relationship, and filmed footage of Thompson is used time and again. But Ralph Steadman alive and creating is far more interesting than Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes in the wind.

Then there’s Depp, who seems to be spending a weekend or a week at Steadman’s house. Aside from some nice outfits, he’s pretty much a blank, offering neither personality nor insights.

Then again, the movie probably doesn’t get financed unless he’s involved. And even if “For No Good Reason” wanders as a retrospective and look at an artist’s process, it still serves those purposes. We may not know why Ralph Steadman was so angry, but the film makes you grateful for that anger.

'For No Good Reason'

GRADE: B-

Rated R for language, some drug content and brief sexual images

Running time: 89 minutes

tlong@detroitnews.com
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'For No Good Reason' shows that Ralph Steadman is still a vital artist. (Sony Pictures Classics)