Johnny Depp is no stranger to a tale of chronic excesses. When he starred as Hunter S. Thompson in the landmark maelstrom of madness that was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he essentially imparted the yardstick for comic movie madness. However, 11 years earlier, a British comedy propagated much of the same substance-induced cinematic carnage and became a cult classic that Depp himself describes as being “as perfect as The Godfather.”
Back in 2017, Depp was tasked with curating a selection of films for Glastonbury Festival’s cinema tent. The Pirates of the Caribbean star went for a grab-bag of classics befitting of festivities, but none more so than the iconic Withnail & I. Depp proclaimed: “Lastly, no film has ever made me laugh more, or filled me with so much joy… and dread, than Withnail & I! For me, this is perfect cinema. As perfect as Chinatown, as The Godfather, as Time of the Gypsies. Genius.”
What makes the genius comedy so befitting of Glastonbury and indeed the guitar playing Johnny Depp’s attention is that the film as a whole has undoubtedly one of the greatest compilations of rock music ever put to film. In part, this is owing to the fact that none other than George Harrison of The Beatles received a producer credit for his role in getting the project off the ground. Along his classic track ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is the likes of King Curtis and Jimi Hendrix, who also featured on the soundtrack bolstered by score movements from David Dundas and Rick Wentworth.
For those who haven’t seen it, Withnail and I is a tale of chronic excesses that producer George Harrison would have been more than familiar with. However, Harrison’s artistic integrity would mean that his song isn’t just dropped in for the hell of it; the cascading melody perfectly matches the sleep-walking decline of the film’s protagonists. There’s no doubting that ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is an artefact of beauty, but it is all the sort of beauty that seems to have been put through a Hunter S. Thompson-esque ringer too, making it ideal for this riotous British comedy.
Since its release in 1987, Withnail & I has been parodied a good few times and has entered the realm of influential cult classic status. However, it didn’t get off to a great start. The first preview screening of the movie was an absolute disaster as seemingly not one single joke coaxed a chuckle from the stone-faced audience, only for a distraught director, Bruce Robinson, to learn later that the entire audience comprised of non-English speaking tourists from the hotel next to the screening venue.
Much like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas itself, the film does such a good job of capturing the era in which it was set that Paul McGann remarked in 2010 that often people approach him and seemingly think that it was actually made in 1969 after all. “It comes from the mid-1980s, but it sticks out like a Smiths record. Its provenance is from a different era. None of the production values, none of the iconography, none of the style remotely has it down as an 80s picture,” he said.
With a golden soundtrack, laugh-out-loud mayhem and a disturbing disaster story to ram it all home, it’s not hard to see why Depp described it as being as perfect as The Godfather. Sometimes comedies deserve an equal share of the limelight for their joy-giving ways.