Long before Kurt Cobain, there was Darby Crash. Young, creative and doomed, Crash was a punk rocker whose band, the Germs, helped define the L.A. punk scene in the 1970s.
Despite brief, euphoric fame, Crash--whose lyrics depicted the alienation of his generation--grew disillusioned with life, turned to heroin and died of an overdose that was possibly suicide at age 22 in 1980, on the same day John Lennon was murdered. But Crash's legacy lived on, as punk and its alienated misfit stance helped inspire the grunge scene that came a generation later.
Now, Crash's life story is coming to celluloid, thanks to Cineville Pictures and Rodger Grossman, a young screenwriter and American Film Institute graduate who spent three years researching Crash's short, intense life, hanging out with the musician's mother, his friends and Brendan Mullen, whose Masque Club in Hollywood served as L.A.'s punk hub.
Grossman, who will make his directing debut, hopes to shoot inside the original Masque, which has been used as a storage facility and remains perfectly preserved, down to the punk graffiti on its walls.
With a proposed budget of between $3 million and $5 million, Cineville anticipates a film that will mirror the edgy, independent style of the musical era. Together, Grossman and Cineville have even set up a Web page (http://www.drn.com/darby/index.htm) to promote the film.
Cineville and Grossman are now in the midst of casting, with shooting scheduled to begin this spring.
The film's producers say actors Jared Leto ("How to Make an American Quilt," the upcoming "Prefontaine") and Brad Renfro ("Sleepers," "Tom and Huck") have also expressed interest. Cineville and Grossman are looking for a certain kind of edgy name to drive the budget, and they plan to pack the film with interesting cameos.
"The spirit of punk is present in everyone, and this is a subject that's dear to a lot of people's hearts," says Zachary Matz, who will produce the film. "But it's not an easy movie to make because a lot of the people are still alive."
Indeed. Another film project based on Crash's life--by director Allison Anders--has lain dormant for years.
But Matz and Cineville believe that Grossman, who is working with a new script and has the blessing of some of the original participants, is just the guy to pull it off.
"It's not the sensibility that a studio would necessarily embrace," Matz concedes. "But Rodger feels the material. It comes from a grass-roots place."
Are Cineville and Grossman concerned that a movie about a suicidal punk heroin addict may have trouble finding distribution and audiences in this conservative era of V-chips, DARE and the Moral Majority?
"A movie that speaks honestly about issues that concern young people and does not condescend to them is so rare and so important that it can't help but do well," Grossman says. "The things that concerned Darby were very universal. Ultimately what this movie is about is alienation and acceptance and what it means to be a celebrity in today's society, and these are things that everyone can relate to."
Grossman, who calls Crash his idol, first heard the Germs song "My Tunnel" on Rodney Bingenheimer's KROQ radio show at 15 and was immediately hooked.
"There's a truthfulness and an intensity and a darkness that you don't see in modern rock 'n' roll, at least you didn't at that time," says Grossman, 31.
He and his friends immediately became punk rockers and began listening to the Germs and the bands on the SST label: Black Flag, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets and Saccharine Trust.
Meanwhile, Grossman went on to earn a bachelor's degree in film from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, then returned to Los Angeles and went through AFI's directing program.
The idea for the Crash movie grew out of years of hating the way he saw punks portrayed on screen and thinking he could do it better.
Grossman structured his script like a classic Hollywood musical, which uses a set number of songs, each with a specific meaning, to push the narrative forward. In this case, Grossman chose 10 Germs songs that were emblematic of important events in Crash's life.
Since there were few published sources for the period outside of alternative magazines--which aren't indexed or archived--Grossman did hundreds of hours of oral history-style research after tracking down the original participants.
Initially, the scenesters didn't want to talk to him, Grossman says, because they were extremely protective of Crash.
"Everybody loved him and was worried; they thought I would exploit him and focus on his drug use and the violence of the scene," Grossman says.
But he persevered, and ultimately, people responded to his sincerity, he says.