A new documentary about Hunter S. Thompson seeks to look beyond the gonzo, hard-partying stereotype that the journalist has been reduced to in the 15 years since his death. Instead, directors Joseph Watkins and Ajax Phillips‘ new film, Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb, profiles the good doctor’s ultimately-unsuccessful but largely-influential campaign for sheriff of Pitkin county, CO in 1970.
The journalist, author, freak power activist, and cultural icon ran for sheriff of Pitkin, where Aspen is the county seat, in 1970 as an independent. As a result of this “freak power” movement dozens, if not hundreds, of young people who had been ultimately disillusioned by politics as a result of Richard Nixon and the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago voluntarily entered the political sphere, contributing in no small part to the student movement in progressive politics that followed.
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In 1970, Thompson was still a year away from publishing his groundbreaking two-part Rolling Stone series Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In another two years he would hit the campaign trail covering George McGovern. But in 1970, he was Aspen’s resident head who was tired of getting harassed by local law enforcement whose ultimate loyalty—he felt—was to the wealthy tourists who inundated the town, rather than the year-round resident of Owl Creek.
“Hunter S. Thompson saw an America at a crossroads then, and we’re at a similar crossroads today,” co-director Ajax Phillips said. “Hunter’s theory of change was that by getting involved, by voting, by volunteering, young people can change their communities. And that’s an important message for today, ahead of a monumentally impactful election.”
The documentary relies on recently-unearthed archival footage that followed Thompson’s unorthodox path to local politics. Coincidentally, there was a competing film also called Freak Power set to provide a dramatized biopic account of the campaign, with former Rolling Stone writer Jay Bulger starring as Thompson. That project was ultimately shelved due to the pandemic, according to Rolling Stone.
Watkins is keenly aware of the way that time and popular culture has twisted and disembodied Thompson’s legacy. As the proprietor of the Gonzo Gallery in Aspen, he displays the works of artists associated with Thompson such as Ralph Steadman, Tom Benton, and others.
“People would come in and say, ‘Oh my God, I love Hunter Thompson. He’s like my hero,’” Watkins told Rolling Stone. “And then I’d go, ‘Well, what’s your favorite books or your favorite articles?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, well I haven’t read any of his stuff, but I saw Fear and Loathing, and I love Fear and Loathing!’ The campaign is a really important piece of the puzzle.”
Watch the trailer for Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb below. The film is now available to watch on Amazon and iTunes.
Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb – Official Trailer
[Video: Freak Power Film]
[H/T Rolling Stone]