Thursday 17 July 2014

Guru love: "SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon"

One emergent strain in the ongoing documentary renaissance relates to the highs and lows of well-connected showbusiness types: think of 2002's The Kid Stays in the Picture, on the producer Robert Evans, or 2003's The Mayor of Sunset Strip, about the DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, both of which expressed a nostalgia for that supposedly wild, carefree time before faceless, risk-averse suits moved in to turn Hollywood into a fully corporate entity. The breathless SuperMensch, which very much fits the template, opens with manager and fixer Shep Gordon preparing to make his latest deal in his Upper East Side apartment while a plethora of Carter/Reagan-era celebrities, from Sly Stallone to Tom Arnold, pay testimony to the man's general grooviness; faded photos of this balding Jew - physically, a brother to Larry David or Breaking Bad's Mark Margolis - surrounded by beach bunnies suggest certain women also found him irresistible, and that maybe power really is the most potent aphrodisiac. When self-confessed sex addict Michael Douglas shows up to jovially accuse Gordon of thinking with his dick, we know we're in the presence of a serious player.

Gordon's achievements are perhaps less notable than his anecdotes, most of which are grounded in the kind of personal and professional failure today's Harvard-schooled, Sun Tzu-oriented executives simply wouldn't countenance. Within the opening fifteen minutes of SuperMensch, we've learnt how Gordon's first day in L.A. began with him getting socked by Janis Joplin (for interrupting her poolside tryst with Hendrix), and gained a sense of his early mishaps on the road with his favourite, most loyal client Alice Cooper: fleeing one irate promoter who - unable to match the name to the heavily mascara'd face - believed Gordon was bringing him a female folk singer in the Joan Baez mode, seeing an attempt to drum up controversy (and thereby free publicity) by having Cooper and band play in transparent clothing go to naught when the heat being generated by their performance fogged up the most controversial areas of study.

Hanging upon his subject's every word, director Mike Myers brings from his comedy work a splurgy energy and an eye for a telling pop-culture reference, manipulating his archive footage so as to have the young Gordon chased by the baseball bat-wielding gang from The Warriors, or played by Stallone in a biopic that never was; he tosses in the odd cheeky joke, usually at the expense of his fellow Canadians, such as when attributing demure songstress Anne Murray's international hit "Snowbird" to her discovery of cocaine at Gordon's Malibu pad. Every now and again, the film will touch fleetingly on some more or less significant aspect of pop history. It's useful on the development of Cooper's stage persona - so memorably and affectionately sent up by Myers in the first Wayne's World - via a series of stunts more sophisticated than the one mentioned above, and how these briefly turned this golf-playing family man into Public Enemy Number One. (Myers gives the singer's chicken-sacrificing antics at a 1969 peace festival a tremendous punchline in John Lennon's apparently horrified face.) And Gordon's attempt to turn Teddy Pendergrass into "the black Elvis" implicitly points up just how segregated the music business was even in the mid-70s.

Mostly, SuperMensch operates on the level of entertaining tittle-tattle. The abiding memory isn't of Gordon's would-be heartening sponsorship of an ex's children by another father, or of his recent move into the food networks, which is exactly the kind of boringly profitable afterthought a born moneyman might negotiate; no, it's of the frankly unreal story of an early 90s Cannes jaunt that saw Gordon, Douglas, Mick Jagger and Roman Polanski - a more-than-working definition of a sausagefest - staying in a castle Napoleon built for Josephine, during which our main mensch met the Dalai Lama and apparently seduced Sharon Stone. (Sadly, Ms. Stone is not present to confirm or deny these rumours, or indeed anything else of Gordon's all-round splendiferousness.) A frequent criticism of this subgenre - usually ventured by those who've lived to see the counterculture come and go, and grown resigned to the status quo - is that you really had to be there; Myers' film at least gets us in the same room as one of the era's liveliest survivors, no matter that its director once again spends most of the encounter on his knees, declaiming "We're not worthy! We're not worthy!"

SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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