'Story of a Junkie' A.K.A. 'Gringo' *** Movie Review 032408


The Work = ***
This will not be a film for everyone, the material is downright revolting at times. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience out there for ‘Story of a Junkie’ and those that are up for a peak at the world of a heroine addict in New York City of the late 70’s/ early 80’s will appreciate the film. Lloyd Kaufman and his Trauma Studios deserve credit for releasing the film on DVD and I hope it finds its audience. I’m giving you a spoiler warning right now but know that I don’t think the spoilers will take anything away from the film. If you are interested in the film but want to know no more, read no farther and go check out the film.

‘Story of a Junkie’ is a documentary looking film that runs a little over an hour and largely follows heroine addict John Spaceley. The film is an uneasy mix of fly on the wall footage of John shooting up and going about his day to day activities and recreated scenes of shakedowns, drug buys, and confrontations. The juxtaposition of real footage and recreated moments are perhaps the film’s weakest element. It is not really a documentary and not a very straightforward narrative film, so it exists somewhere in between.

Director Lech Kowalski and crew do not shy away from showing the nasty side to heroine abuse and believe me this is not for the feint of heart. It is to the filmmakers credit that the most disturbing moments are actually not seen but stories recounted by Spaceley. He talks about his life and drifts around, begging for cigarettes and scoring cash and heroine however he can. Some of the shots are clearly staged reenactments (a mugging) while others look frighteningly real (long lens shots of Spaceley walking through some rough neighborhoods.)

Another problem with ‘Story of a Junkie’ is that while there is a lot of information conveyed about Spaceley and shooting heroine, it is sort of left up to the viewer to fill in the gaps. This would not necessarily be a bad thing except viewers may not understand the significance of going on methadone or why heroine users repeatedly plunge the syringe in and out while shooting up. The gaps and lack of a strong narrative keep the film from being really educational. There again the film exists in between genres, not educational, not exploitation, somewhere in between.

I enjoyed ‘Story of a Junkie’ and believe the film deserves to be seen. As I sit, struggling to write a coherent review I come up against the problem of articulating why I enjoyed the film and who the audience for it will be. As I said earlier the fact that the most harrowing material is conveyed verbally is one of the best qualities of the film. I think also, that Spaceley is what makes the film what it is. In the same way the filmmakers were drawn to him, he keeps the viewer focused with his life of extreme addiction and poverty. For some reason the Larry Clark book ‘Tulsa’ came to mind. It is a similarly harrowing portrait of addiction that does not offer any answers. I suspect if you read and appreciated ‘Tulsa’ than you just might enjoy 'Story of a Junkie’ for what it is.

The DVD = ***

The Look
This film is very rough looking. Much of it is shot at night and the frame is dominated by shadows. There is some print damage visible. ‘Story of a Junkie’ is presented full frame and I suspect looks about as good as it will, although one wonders if this were a Criterion release would it look a bit better?

The Sound
For the most part the sound is good, nothing remarkable. However some parts of the dialogue are a bit hard to hear. I think that is just the nature of the material but it does lead to one complaint. I release now that in my reviews of DVDs I have made a huge error in not reporting on weather or not the DVDs have closed captioning and/ or subtitles. Unfortunately, this Trauma release has neither closed captioning or subtitles which was an inconvenience for me as it would have made some of the dialogue easier to understand but that will make it downright impossible for those with hearing impairments to watch the film.

The Bonus
First up is an on the street interview with producer Ann Barish conducted by entertaining, self promoting, Kaufman (who wastes no time saying the film is better than ‘Trainspotting’.) The interview is sort of all over the place but does get across a few interesting if not downright disturbing anecdotes. One of the biggest is that people like Spaceley were sometimes paid in drugs. About halfway through a recovering addict walking on the street stops by to talk and most of the rest of the interview deals with him.

‘Story of a Jahnkey’ This has next to nothing to do with ‘Story of a Junkie’ and only at the end does it subject Adam Jahnkey comment that he has seen and liked the film. I have to admit that at first I was annoyed with this feature but ended up finding it downright entertaining (especially some rather X-rated footage from the Trauma movie festival Slamdance.) While it seems really out of place it is entertaining, so what the hell.

Commentary by director Kowalski. This is interesting and left me wanting more. Many of the question that I had about the film were answered but many were not. There is some discrepancy in when this film was released and when the title was changed. The copyright on the film is 1984 and the original title ‘Gringo’ is still visible in the film but there is no explanation of when the changes were made and when it was originally released. Kowalski does say the first title was actually “white boy” but he was talked out of it. He does go into some detail about how things were staged in the film and reveals that poor Spaceley was not in on the staging and ended up thinking many of the events were real. The guy’s very being was exploited for the film, although it certainly is also what gave him an opportunity to be an actor. Throughout the track Kowalski trades some comments with an unidentified person who at times prods him for information. The track is easily the best bonus feature on the DVD and conveys the most info.

There is also a silly trailer for ‘Story of a Junkie’ that seems to try to sell it as a drug fueled action film. I would be curious to know if there was an original trailer available for the film or if this was indeed how it was marketed.

Finally, a bevy of some nasty looking Trauma trailers rounds out the extras.

All Together = ***
Kaufman and company deserve credit for distributing and Kowalski deserves credit for making this gritty film. The DVD is just ok but the Kowalski commentary track helps to make it worth checking out. I know it will not be for everyone but there is an audience out there for it and if I can help someone find the film than my job is done. Spaceley’s journey is a disturbing one that clearly shows the ravages of drug abuse. You will not find an uplifting film here but it is an interesting one. Recommended for those that think they are up for it, just be aware of what you are getting into.


'Story of a Junkie' (A.K.A. 'Gringo') Links:


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