SIFF 2014 Review: Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

Chris Estey

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon(Directed by Mike Myers, USA, 2013, 84 minutes)

He had been in Los Angeles and got punched out twice in 24 hours. Kick-started in the business by Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin while on LSD trying to separate them from having sex poolside at his hotel (he thought it was an attack), Shep Gordon was then told what to do with his life by the mystical guitar player from Seattle. Jimi would turn him on to bands and tell him to manage him, and he seemed to know it was the voice of God telling him to help the right people out. Soon he was getting rockers and radio DJs and rack jobbers in the music scene high and selling copious amounts of weed to make do as he got his artists off the ground, orchestrating shady dealings at venues and on tour buses and planes with a T-shirt that bragged “No Head No Backstage Passes,” quickly learning how to hoax the press into loving what he loved through acts of promotional sabotage on passers by. (For example, a bus advertising a lewd American glam-shock rocker goes through London traffic at rush hour and breaks down, on purpose, so the name Alice Cooper is burned into angry, curious minds.)About the primary title for Shep Gordon’s biographical documentary: I like the first Urban Dictionary definition of mensch, “An upstanding, worthy, honorable adult person of either sex.” Mike Myers makes his directorial debut chronicling the music business plus adventures of what he must think is “a hell of a guy.” Gordon is indeed a legend in show business, getting his gritty start in rock and roll management by building hilariously destructive and creatively provocative mystique around original alternative rocker Cooper (the man formed out of the band), then branching out into strangely promoting Anne Murray to a rock audience, branding celebrity chefs in a world that “paid them nothing and treated them like shit,” and along the way, embodying the parlous persona of Mr. Show Biz: Balancing outrageous pranks with a soldier’s determination to succeed with buzz.

There is a lot of love for Shep Gordon in this movie, especially from Vincent Furnier (Alice) and his people, as Shep guided him from nearly the beginning of his career till the glam-shock-rock demigod appeared in Wayne’s World (and thus the connection with filmmaker and yes that comedy superstar Myers). Oh also, when Cooper appeared in that movie, Gordon insisted they use a new song, not “School’s Out” or “Billion Dollar Babies,” because he deeply understood the needs of his clients, to keep amping the latest, to not rest on laurels, the basics on how to make and keep people famous.

I never knew Jimi was Shep’s mentor, and this image of the futurist-shaman-atavistic rocker within time and conducting social change and not just mind-altering psyche-rock is awesomely told. But the too-soon deaths of his friends (Janis too) weighed heavy on Gordon, who then seemed to sort of help punk come along by pulling all kinds of mess-with-the-record labels stunts, pissing off the government, living above the law by publicizing Alice Cooper with a chicken being torn apart alive at one show (it could have only been brought in by Shep), making Cooper a Canadian citizen to get coveted airplay time put aside for its own citizens (which he hadn’t been, originally), the sort of PR campaign promo men and musicians dream about. He put panties on every LP (in the School’s Out album), in a record cover that opened like a student desk lid, which might have cost a fortune, but it made the label a fortune. Anyways, I highly recommend the first hour of this doc to see how to get into the minds of music fans; to make the general public actually care; to piss parents off for a much more interesting world.

After that, and during the alcoholic breakdown of Furnier, Gordon thought about the music he himself liked, which was the gentle folk stylings of Anne Murray. So he signed the Canadian on and put her on the rocking Midnight Special; arranged her to be photographed with the “Hollywood Vampires,” John Lennon’s gang of semi-famous Dionysian musicians in LA (including the ex-Beatles' shambolic bad-example demon twin Harry Nilsson), which made her career. He never encouraged anything but authenticity out of Murray; and like many others throughout his life, hosted her at his sprawling manse in Hawaii, an oasis of bliss and relaxation he crafted to put his beloved artists at ease with the world.

But was Shep Gordon at ease with the world? No, he was depressed. A lot of friends had died in the wake of the 60s, sure, but his main role had been in making them famous, but what about him? If they couldn’t find satisfaction by being known by the world, how could he expect to feel verified in their shadows? His own terrible upbringing haunted him: A vicious family life in which he’d been raised where he would just as soon as disappear, than receive more degradation. He made his real family in the world, in people he could dream with and play with; even adopting a family out of an early marriage gone wrong he somehow made as right as he could. Still, it was never enough.

It is here where Gordon gets hungry; literally. He never cooked (“I was a spaghetti and ketchup kind of guy”) and had become amazing at chefs who were doing restaurant appearances for $2500 a plate; but they weren’t receiving the fruits of their labors. So he got behind Emeril Lagasse, and made him the first of these new rock star-era chefs to market themselves (and their own restaurants and products) into super-celebrity status. Then he met and married and then of course managed a woman into raw foods; and friend and frequent talking head here Tom Arnold says about it, “It blew his ass out.” He’d had a heart attack of the small intestine and it nearly killed him.

The film ends abruptly after this; we learn little else, other than Shep would probably like to find a new lady to have some babies with. (The other talking heads of Personal Assistants and women in his extended family saying what a mensch is sort of makes this feel like a big personal ad given to him for the world by Mike Myers.)

The screenings for Supermensch at SIFF have already passed, so if you want to see it, you’ll have to wait for the general release. If you are a music business freak like me, I highly recommend its first half, into how he cared for the celebrity chefs. He could really spot talent and match it and somehow make things more fair and the world better at the same time. The rest grates a bit but doesn’t go on too long. Ultimately, best wishes to Shep on his search for happiness in these autumn years of his ecstatic life.

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