Documentary offers an insider’s view of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff in Aspen ~ The Aspen Times
Issues at center of campaign captured in ‘Freak Power’ are relevant 50 years later
What: ‘Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb’
Where: Pre-orders freakpower.com; Amazon and other streaming services
When: Beginning Friday, Oct. 23
How much: $19.99
More info: The Aspen Art Museum will host an in-person screening of the film on Saturday, Oct. 17 at 6:30 p.m. The event is sold-out. Public festivities for “Freak Power Day” and a voter registration drive will begin at noon at the Pitkin County Courthouse and will run throughout the day downtown and at the Gonzo Gallery.
Coinciding with the public release of “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb” on Oct 23, the Aspen Times will publish a special 16-page insert reprinting the newspaper’s original contemporaneous coverage of Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign for sheriff in 1970. Look for it on newsstands and at aspentimes.com
An old film canister labeled “Hunter Thompson for Sheriff” turned up in artist Travis Fulton’s barn off Ute Avenue in Aspen three years ago, setting off a series of archival discoveries that have shed new light on the gonzo journalist’s influential 1970 campaign and led to the new documentary “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb.”
The film, co-directed by Aspenites Ajax Phillips and Daniel Joseph Watkins, will be released to video-on-demand services, Oct. 23.
In all, the filmmakers found about seven hours of film footage shot during the campaign by Robert E. Fulton III. It had never been seen by the public — some of it never developed — and was spread between his archives in Aspen, New Jersey and Los Angeles.
“It’s been a treasure hunt,” Phillips said during a July 2019 editing session.
The revelatory footage — along with photographs by David Hiser and Bob Krueger — brings the viewer inside Thompson’s campaign headquarters at the Hotel Jerome, into the legendary debate between Thompson and incumbent Sheriff Carrol D. Whitmire and out to Thompson’s Owl Farm as threats of violence against him mount. It vividly captures the Nixon era scene on the streets as Thompson leads a youthful, peaceful revolution to get young hippies and “freaks” to vote and take control of local government.
“It seems to me the way to cope with power is not to ignore it but to get it,” Thompson says of his aims in the film.
INSIDE THE CAMPAIGN
The film opens with a scene of young Aspenites pouring into the Isis Theatre in downtown Aspen for the 1970 Thompson-Whitmire debate. On stage Whitmire claims not to understand what “freak power” is, while Thompson proudly brandishes the label.
“I am not at all embarrassed to be called a freak,” Thompson says. “To deviate from the style of government that I deplore today is not only wise but necessary.”
From there “Freak Power” is off and running, moving at a breakneck pace through Election Night.
A quick-cut montage sets the local and national scene of 1970 — war in Vietnam, assassinations, President Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, political violence from the Weathermen, racial inequality and activism, student protestors killed at Kent State. It’s cut against the dawn of the drop-out ski bum era in Aspen, when hippies fled cities for the Roaring Fork Valley and clashed with the conservative tourism industry establishment epitomized by Whitmire.
Thompson, radicalized by the police brutality he witnessed and fell victim to while covering the Democratic National Convention in 1968, sought to try a new kind of politics and law enforcement here in his backyard, in the hopes of inspiring national change — a voter-driven revolution that could be duplicated elsewhere around the U.S.
“What we’re trying to do is to make the vote work, to bring people back into the government,” Thompson’s campaign manager Ed Bastian says in archival footage.
Police harassment of hippies and “land rape” by developers were local signals of troubling national trends, Thompson notes.
“I don’t think we can afford to ignore the national political realities any longer,” he says.
“Freak Power” offers a play-by-play of the campaign as it happens from Thompson, Bastian and “minister of information” Alex Sweetman, explaining the Freak Power philosophy and strategy. The film also shows up close the campaign’s fear and paranoia as the opposition begins to play dirty, death threats roll in and the FBI starts spying on the Thompson campaign.
The film cogently explains Thompson’s flamboyant platform to change the name of Aspen to “Fat City,” sod the streets and ban traffic from downtown, control drug sales and forbid non-residents from hunting and fishing. But it also outlines the more serious and prescient reforms he pushed for, like disarming sheriff’s deputies and down-zoning construction to save the local landscape from development.
The film makes pointed use of footage from prominent Aspenites of the day who criticize Thompson, Mayor Eve Homeyer and the notorious anti-hippie restaurateur Guido Mayer among them. It also suggests that the population of Austrian and German immigrants who had helped found the ski resort here in the 1940s included former Nazis whose intolerance had pervaded local government and politics by 1970.
The issues at the center of the campaign, as captured in “Freak Power,” are shockingly relevant 50 years later. Scenes of voter suppression and post-Kent State protests are strikingly similar to those playing out today nationally during early voting and at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The viewer is often reminded of how little has changed, but also of how ahead of their time Thompson’s proposed solutions were, including police reform with oversight by an ombudsman, a “community policing” model that finally gained mainstream national traction this summer amid the nationwide protests over police brutality.
Here we see Thompson call for “preventative work” by police, arguing “unless you get at the cause you are never going to control the effect.”
People scoff in the film at Thompson’s drug decriminalization platform, but viewers will notice some of those proposals have became reality in the 21st century as well.
The film will help solidify Thompson’s legacy as a serious and wise political thinker. The man at the center of “Freak Power” is not the drug-gobbling cartoonish character of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” but a clear-eyed, committed and imaginative reformer (with, of course, a genius sense of humor and flair for political theater, showcased as Thompson shaves his head so he can call Whitmire “my long-haired opponent”).
“Freak Power” races to its conclusion with a gripping tick-tock of the rising tensions and many scandals of the campaign’s final days, including the arrival of an undercover federal agent who attempts to infiltrate the Thompson campaign and the specter of dynamite bombings against the Freak Power faithful.
“Having worked on the campaign, the movie brings out a lot of stuff even I did not know about, especially that paranoia,” former Sheriff Bob Braudis, a volunteer for Thompson in 1970 who went on to become a close friend and to implement many of Thompson’s ideas during his 24 years in office, said Wednesday.
Among the most stunning things in “Freak Power,” Watkins and Phillips noted, is the realization that the iconoclast Hunter Thompson was actually the candidate playing by all the rules in this race, the one using the legal tools of democracy as intended.
“If bombing is the last resort I’m not against it,” he says in the film. “The point is that we are not at that last resort. I don’t think we are anywhere near it.”
The film colorfully captures the heady scene inside the Hotel Jerome on election night, with costumed freaks expecting to usher in a new political era. It also depicts the heartbreak of young Aspen as Whitmire pulls away, winning by 500 votes.
“I made a mistake in thinking the town could handle an honest political campaign,” Thompson says in his concession, wrapped in an American flag and wearing a founding fathers’ wig, adding: “The American Dream really is f—ed.”
MAKING ‘FREAK POWER’
‘Freak Power’: Inside Hunter S. Thompson’s Run for Aspen Sheriff ~ ROLLING STONE
Co-directors Daniel Joseph Watkins and Ajax Phillips discuss finding archival footage of the 1970 campaign, and how the late journalist might view our current election
Two years before he covered George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign trail for Rolling Stone, Hunter S. Thompson ran for office himself as a candidate for sheriff in Pitkin County, Colorado. His work for the magazine, including 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, solidified Thompson’s brand of Gonzo journalism that became his trademark. It’s largely overshadowed his influential campaign. Until now.
The new documentary Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb (available to stream on Amazon and iTunes) tells the story of Thompson’s run for sheriff, using unearthed archival footage discovered by co-directors Daniel Joseph Watkins and Ajax Phillips. Arriving 50 years after Thompson’s campaign and right before the 2020 presidential election, the film is meant to show a more serious side of the late journalist. (By coincidence, there was a competing project also titled Freak Power starring former Rolling Stone writer Jay Bulger as Thompson, but it was shelved due to the pandemic. Directed by Robert F. Kennedy III, it told a fictionalized account of the campaign, while Watkins and Phillips’ film is strictly a documentary.)
Watkins, who wrote a book on the campaign in 2015, also runs the Gonzo Gallery in Aspen, which showcases the artwork of Ralph Steadman, Tom Benton, and other artists associated with Thompson. “People would come in and say, ‘Oh my God, I love Hunter Thompson. He’s like my hero,’” Watkins tells 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.”
The footage of the campaign was taken by the late filmmaker and pilot Robert E. Fulton III. The first reel, simply labeled “Hunter Thompson for Sheriff,” was found in a barn in the spring of 2017. Fulton’s daughter helped locate the rest in his basement archive in Connecticut. “One of the stories that’s told about him is that he would pull out his saxophone while he was flying, and pull out a joint,” Watkins says. “A really wild filmmaker.”
These rare clips shows Thompson running under the “Freak Power” ticket, where he shaves his head to call his incumbent Carol Whitmire his “long-haired opponent.” He dominates his opponent in a debate at the Isis Theatre, receiving praise from the hippie crowd. “I agree that to catch a ski thief might be a hell of a lot harder than to catch some poor brother on the street with a joint in his hand,” he says dryly. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons there’s been so many marijuana arrests and so few ski arrests.”
David Hiser/Freak Power
Thompson’s interest in politics was fueled by the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where he witnessed police brutality against protesters and was even teargassed. The event greatly shaped his views. “It was an eye-opening experience for him,” Phillips says. “I think he felt like engaging young people and getting back into democracy and trying to make the system work was a lot smarter than trying to get involved with some of these revolutionary groups who were active at the time.”
A year later, he pressured lawyer Joe Edwards to run for Aspen mayor. Edwards had represented hippies in the first civil rights case in Colorado, where they pressed charges against police in town for harassing them and putting them in jail. Thompson would write about this campaign and detail his own goals for sheriff in Rolling Stone — his first byline in the magazine. “Throughout the campaign I’d been promising, on the streets and in the bars, that if Edwards won this Mayor’s race I would run for Sheriff next year,” he wrote. “But it never occurred to me that I would actually have to run, no more than I’d ever seriously believed we could mount to a ‘takeover bid’ in Aspen.”
Edwards and Thompson lost their bids, but Thompson’s campaign greatly influenced Aspen. “We like to say that he lost the battle, but he and his associates won the war, because they mobilized all the young people in town to register to vote and get involved,” Watkins says. Edwards would become Pitkin County Commissioner in 1972, where he instituted many of Thompson’s policies, including environment protection and land use reform.
In addition to the footage, the film includes interviews with Edwards, former Pitkin Country Sheriff Bob Braudis, campaign manager Ed Bastian, Steadman, and Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. (Fortunately, the interviews were conducted prior to the pandemic.) Voiceovers appear throughout the film, yet you don’t see any talking heads until the final few minutes. Phillips and Watkins attribute this to editor Angus Wall, who previously worked on The Social Network. “The idea was to have it be like a time capsule, because in a kind of traditional documentary, the contemporary interviews can kind of be disruptive to that feeling of being in a certain time,” Phillips says. “The idea was to like stay really tightly in that time period until the very end of the film.”
Freak Power: The Ballot of the Bomb arrives a day after the final presidential debate — and that’s by design. “I think that he would have a lot to say about this election,” Phillips suspects. “Like Hunter said, the ‘hypocritical gibberish’ that is coming to the surface is exactly what he was railing against 50 years ago,” Phillips says. “Basically, politicians just lying and lying and lying and getting away with it. Hunter would definitely be calling out a lot of people right now.”
“Obviously, it’s a rich political environment right now for commentary,” adds Watkins. “We felt like if we stayed in 1970 the whole time and we use Nixon, people are going to see the parallels. We knew what we were doing, we knew that it was an important film, but we had no idea how relevant, and timely, and kind of prescient it became because of all the civil strife that our country’s going through.”