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Before Lady Gaga, before Marilyn Manson, before Freddie Kruger, there was Alice Cooper. Born in Detroit in 1948, Vincent Damon Furnier was a strait-laced All-American preacher’s son who first got the rock bug playing with a Beatles-spoof school band called the Earwigs. After five years of struggle and setbacks in late 1960s LA, he finally transformed into Alice Cooper – first a collective band name, then Furnier’s hard-rocking solo alter ego, a cartoonish circus ringmaster who became notorious for explosively theatrical concerts featuring live snakes, macabre horror-movie stunts and mock guillotine executions. Hence the phrase: no head, no backstage pass.
Retracing Cooper’s rise from church-going geek to arena-filling shock-rock sensation, this Canadian-made documentary is a fun but unrevealing affair. Framed as a Jekyll and Hyde story, it features voiceover contributions from Cooper plus a host of famous friends including Elton John, Bernie Taupin and Iggy Pop. The background action also includes fleeting cameos from John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Diana Ross, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Carson, Salvador Dali, Frank Sinatra and many more.
This starry cast list alone should pull crowds when Super Duper Alice Cooper has its world premiere at the Tribeca film festival this week. The baby-boomer-led rock nostalgia market and Cooper’s essential affability should also stir interest when the documentary goes on limited release in U.K. theaters next week. Home entertainment release follows next month, and will likely prove a more natural fit for this kind of uncritical, fan-friendly format.
In the typically overblown PT Barnum style that has defined the rocker’s 40-plus-year career, Super Duper Alice Cooper is billed as a “shockumentary” and “the first ever doc opera”. In practice, this means a visual collage of archive footage, animation and still photos that have been lightly manipulated to add space and movement. Cooper and his co-stars only narrate from offscreen, never appearing as contemporary talking heads. It’s a lively and eye-catching mix, but hardly groundbreaking.
Super Duper Alice Cooper is a polished collective effort from its directors Reginald Harkema, Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn, who have previously made similar films on fellow veteran rockers including Rush and Iron Maiden. However, it has the misfortune of arriving almost in tandem with Supermensch, the Mike Myers-directed documentary portrait of Cooper’s colorful longtime manager Shep Gordon, which incorporates many of the same key anecdotes within a broader and more irreverent narrative. Both films are affectionate and officially endorsed projects, but at least Myers manages to shake off the the feel of a promotional marketing vehicle.
Credited here as executive producer, Gordon is one of many vocal contributors to the audio track alongside Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Iggy Pop, Pamela Des Barres and John Lydon, who has always cited Cooper as a formative influence on the Sex Pistols. Mutual public back-slapping is the norm in this type of rockumentary, of course, but these fawning soundbites sound oddly rushed and lazy. Having secured the services of Lydon and Pop, both great talkers and caustic wits, any serious filmmaker should have teased out some sharper insights.
To their credit, the directors do not shy away from unsexy material, notably Cooper’s ultra-square religious upbringing. But diplomatic discretion is their default mode, skipping gingerly through his late 1970s descent into alcoholism and cocaine abuse, when he became a skeletally thin, hollow-eyed zombie. A darker and possibly more interesting story lurks between the lines here. The film-makers also avoid discussion of Cooper’s current born-again Christian beliefs, including claims that the Old Testament is literal truth. His track record as a Bush-voting Republican, another potentially divisive topic, is safely overlooked too.
Super Duper Alice Cooper ends abruptly with the rocker’s mid 1980s comeback, an odd editorial decision that misses some of his more newsworthy latterday exploits, from surviving a near-fatal stage gallows accident to whipping up outrage in Britain’s Houses of Parliament. But only culturally clueless, headline-hungry politicians could mistake schlocky sensationalism for genuine danger.
Despite his battles with booze, drugs and authority figures, Cooper has always been a quaintly old-fashioned Vaudeville showman at heart. That is why Super Duper Alice Cooper is never less than entertaining. He is also a shrewd businessman, which explains the rationale behind this inessential documentary, repackaging ancient war stories that he has told – and sold – a thousand times before.
Production companies: Banger Films, Teleflm Canada, Entertainment One
Producers: Scot McFadyen, Sam Dunn
Cast: Alice Cooper, Shep Gordon, Elton John, Iggy Pop, John Lydon, Dennis Dunaway, Sheryl Cooper, Bob Ezrin, Neal Smith, Bernie Taupin
Directors & screenwriters: Reginald Harkema, Scot McFadyen, Sam Dunn
Editors: Alex Shuper, Reginald Harkema
Art Director: Derek Tokar
Sales company: Eagle Rock Entertainment, London/New York
Rated 15 (U.K.), 86 minutes
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