The great Hunter S. Thompson documentary has yet to be made, but there's a respectable draft—including a blueprint on what not to do—in Gonzo. Things begin promisingly enough with rare footage of Thompson, fresh off his best-selling debut, looking young and uncomfortable on the set of To Tell the Truth. The story of the writing of Hell's Angels, from Thompson's elation at hanging with motorcycle-riding barbarians to the brutal stomping that he received when he turned out to be just another goddamned... writer, is told with economy and skill. And coverage of Thompson's campaign for sheriff of Aspen, a crazy few months that could easily be the subject of its own documentary, is just as lively.

Everything goes quite well until the 1960s start. Some painfully obvious musical choices (it's long past time to consign Don McLean's "American Pie" and the Jimi Hendrix cover of "All Along the Watchtower" to Freedom Rock Hell, never to be used in a film about the '60s ever again) and an overreliance on clips from Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas adaptation take some of the wind out of the portraiture. Johnny Depp's overearnest narration, too, is almost embarrassingly adoring and flat.

But besides a tedious stretch in the middle about How the Sixties Changed Everything, Gonzo really does take the appropriate tone for a documentary about Thompson. It's more than willing to admit that he could be needy and petulant as well as principled and brilliant. And the passages about the 1972 campaign, when Thompson wrote his best book, are clearly handled by a director with a flair for the political. It's not nirvana for Thompson fanatics, but it's a good introduction and credible celebration of the man's work.