Rodger Grossman, What We Do Is Secret, 2007, color film in 35 mm, 92 minutes. Production stills. Left: Lorna Doom (Bijou Phillips). Right: Darby Crash (Shane West). Photos: Kevin Estrada.

IN 1975, fellow high school outcasts Jan Paul Beahm (known as Bobby Pyn and then, more famously, Darby Crash) and Georg Ruthenberg (soon to be christened Pat Smear) resolved to start a band, but with a backward strategy: Recruit members, advertise, do a gig, and then learn how to play the instruments. The group’s first show, as chronicled in director Rodger Grossman’s debut film What We Do Is Secret (2007), is a noisy, incompetent rumble that devolves into Crash (played by Shane West, an eerie doppelgänger) flinging flour onto the audience and sticking a microphone into a jar of peanut butter. The band is kicked off the stage after only five minutes, but clearly they’ve caught the performance bug. So the Germs—one of Los Angeles’s most notorious punk bands—are born.

What We Do Is Secret details the Germs’ volatile run from 1975 to 1980, reenacting the band’s frequently destructive performances—Crash would often cut himself onstage, among other stunts—that caused them to be blacklisted from nearly every club in LA. Interviews, documentary-style, break up the film’s chronological narrative—Crash’s are presented as black-and-white flashbacks, while his bandmates’ are filmed in color, presumably conducted after Crash’s death. (On hitting the mark of his much-iterated “five-year plan,” Crash committed suicide by heroin overdose in 1980.) Shot on film—which gives a pleasing richness to fluorescent lighting and the grimiest of punk clubs—What We Do Is Secret is a realistic snapshot of an era’s nihilistic drug and music culture. But it’s not all anarchic despair: A sense of playfulness pervades, from a quick shot of Joan Jett, “producer” of the Germs’ sole album, (GI), who is shown passed out on the studio’s couch, to the subtitles for a pretentious club owner’s English, to the occasional sight gag, such as the exaggerated, ill-fitting wigs on some of the characters, a jokey contrast to West and Bijou Phillips’s otherwise meticulous punk aesthetic.

Despite a fifteen-year struggle for funding, Grossman managed to secure a solid, charismatic cast—West (an ER regular and Mandy Moore’s costar in the 2002 romance A Walk to Remember), Rick Gonzalez as a guileless Smear, Phillips (seemingly typecasting herself as a drug-addled delinquent) as a bristly but vulnerable Lorna Doom, and Noah Segan as the arty, optimistic drummer Don Bolles. Citing Vincente Minnelli and Bob Fosse as influences, Grossman structured the film as a musical, where each song’s performance (in this case the “hits” “Sex Boy,” “Circle One,” “Lexicon Devil,” and the eponymous “What We Do Is Secret”) means to propel the narrative forward. Of course, no one breaks spontaneously into song, and the significance of each “live” performance will be lost on the uninitiated. Indeed, serious Germs fans will be satisfied, but the movie’s archetypal rise-and-fall story does offer a broader appeal, if not for the needle-squeamish.

West’s expressive portrayal of Crash is substantive as far as the dialogue allows, but the film never offers any real insight into the tragic singer’s thoughts or motivations. (Why a five-year plan, exactly? And why his obsession with circles?) Meanwhile, Crash’s conflict with his homosexuality is only briefly alluded to, and certain characters serving as foils are relied on too frequently: By the third time someone reads aloud Crash’s lyrics and proclaims him a “genius,” we’ve gotten the point—but otherwise, the musician’s reputed intellect doesn’t quite come through. Crafted with painstaking attention to detail, Grossman’s film is an engaging trip back to the nascence of West Coast punk, but Crash’s internal life remains largely a secret.

What We Do Is Secret is currently playing in select theaters.

Nicole Lanctot