Arts and Culture

A new documentary about famed gonzo journalist and Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson will have a drive-in premiere Monday night in the Louisville area.

Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb” will screen at Sauerbeck Family Drive-In in La Grange, presented in partnership with Louisville Film Society. It focuses on Thomson’s 1970 bid for sheriff of Pitkin County in Colorado, where Aspen is the county seat. 

Daniel Joseph “DJ” Watkins, who co-directed the film and wrote a book on Thompson also called “Freak Power,” said they wanted to highlight this lesser-known aspect of Thompson’s life. 

“He was focused and he was deadly determined to shake up the local political structure,” Watkins said. “So, one of the interesting things about this is seeing Hunter in a new light, as a politician, but also as kind of a fearless idealist and seeing him fight the establishment through the ballot box.”

The title speaks to one of Thompson’s fundamental beliefs during his political campaign. 

“Freak power was the idea to get people that were disenfranchised or not engaged in politics involved, to empower them, get them involved in the political process and then take power.”

Thompson narrowly lost the election, but the key issues of his platform, such as pedestrian-friendly downtowns and legalizing marijuana, stuck around, Watkins said. 

“At the beginning, he shocked a lot of people with radical ideas,” Watkins said. “His platform positions… there were a lot of ideas that actually came to pass later on.”

Another key issue he ran on in 1970 was police reform. 

“Hunter had a lot of ideas about reforming law enforcement, and making law enforcement more community-based and compassionate-based,” Watkins said. 

In fact, that made it two-fold in motivating the film team to hold this event near Louisville, which is where Thompson was born and raised, but also a “flashpoint for this debate and ideas around law enforcement today, and how can we rethink it.”

The documentary, released for streaming Friday on platforms such as iTunes and Amazon, includes “never-before-seen” archival footage.

Cinematographer Robert Fulton III had followed Thompson during his 1970 campaign. 

“For whatever reason, they didn’t end up using the footage, and a project at that time was sort of just shelved,” Watkins said. “In 2017, we came across one of his cans of footage… it really was illuminating because it brought to life a lot of the stories that we had known that had happened during the campaign, but seeing it first hand was really special and added a whole other dimension.”

Watkins co-director on the film is Ajax Phillips. It was produced by Mimi Polk Gitlin (“Thelma and Louise,” “The Breadwinner”) and Angus Wall (editor, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Social Network”), and edited by Will Znidaric (“Winter on Fire”). The music is by Academy Award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (“Brokeback Mountain”, “Babel”). 

Hunter S. Thompson’s son and Louisville resident, Juan Thompson, will give a brief introduction before the drive-in screening Monday night. 

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.