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.”
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.”