Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon: Toronto Review

Supermensch - H 2013
Mike Myers pays affectionate tribute to the idiosyncratic manager behind Alice Cooper and other major music talent of the 1970s and '80s.

Mike Myers' documentary directing debut looks at the talent manager whose eclectic client list included Alice Cooper, Anne Murray, Blondie, Teddy Pendergrass and Groucho Marx.

TORONTO – Making his debut as a documentarian with a subject obviously close to his heart, Mike Myers plants a sloppy kiss on an entertainment industry maverick whose management savvy boosted the careers of an eclectic range of artists in Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon. As the title suggests, this lively portrait is as much about the subject’s humanity as his skill at making deals or shaping careers. That duality explains how the same guy who sent a live chicken to its death onstage at an Alice Cooper concert can also end up brewing Tibetan yak butter tea for the Dalai Lama.

Both those anecdotes are shared on-camera, and the loquacious Gordon is an inveterate raconteur whose interviews benefit from his warm rapport with Myers. The two met in 1991 while negotiating the use of a song by Cooper in Wayne’s World. Myers reveals that when he fell into a funk some time after, he asked to go stay a few days at Gordon’s house on Maui; he ended up being cared for there by his friend for two months.

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That indebtedness might suggest a strictly laudatory view, and indeed Supermensch is very much a celebration. But Gordon comes across as a refreshingly candid man who feels no compulsion to varnish the truth.

Myers’ introductory music choices -- the frenetic Mediterranean surf rock of Tel Aviv trio Boom Pam, some retro-cool cocktail samba -- right off the bat signal that he means to put a buoyant spin on his subject. And Gordon plays along by reflecting on his career with a certain tickled amazement.

He fell into music management by chance after moving to Los Angeles straight out of college. Checking into the Hollywood Landmark Motor Hotel, he got punched by Janis Joplin and was handed vocational guidance by Jimi Hendrix: “Are you Jewish? You should be a manager.”

Gordon’s early clients included Pink Floyd for a mysteriously brief nine days, but the key figure was definitely Cooper. After tanking in Los Angeles on a bill with the Doors and then being ejected from a venue where he was meant to open for Ike and Tina Turner, Cooper was whisked by Gordon back to his native Detroit. There they honed Cooper’s ghoulish vaudeville show of violence, sex and rebellion, based on the principle that anything parents hate, kids will love.

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Even if the densely packed material is a little too breathless in its pacing, this section is enormously entertaining. Cooper’s stage antics are shown in fun clips that feature the shock-rocker performing in a straitjacket, naked under clear plastic, or submitting to onstage execution by hanging, electric chair or guillotine. The notorious poultry incident led to him being described in one review as a neo-Dadaist.

Cutting from outrageous performance moments to the aging rock icon in a polo shirt, sitting on a boat with Gordon or sauntering around the golf course together, yields some gentle laughs, with Cooper clearly in on the joke.

The extensive focus on Gordon’s work with Cooper points up the strange juxtaposition of that artist alongside one of his other major successes of the ‘70s, Anne Murray. Having trouble booking the white-bread Canadian country-pop singer onto NBC’s The Midnight Special, Gordon upped her hipster credibility by having her photographed with Cooper’s drinking club, the Hollywood Vampires, which included John Lennon, Harry Nilsson and Mickey Dolenz.

Gordon was instrumental in busting Teddy Pendergrass out of dreary suits and into sexier attire as he was molded into “the black Elvis,” playing women-only concerts. One of the most emotional clips here shows Pendergrass’ return to the stage at the historic 1985 Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, three years after an auto accident had left him a paraplegic. Less time is spent on Luther Vandross, another R&B vocalist who rose to superstardom during his association with Gordon, but took it personally when his manager quit the business.

Myers recaps Gordon’s entry into chef management. This was undertaken more out of an interest in the culinary arts and as a favor to friends in a then-underappreciated field than as a moneymaking venture. But with Emeril Lagasse as his breakthrough client, he helped usher in the era of celebrity chefs on television.

Gordon’s involvement in movies is touched in cursory fashion and seems marginal compared to his influence in music. But the whirl of Hollywood celebrities in his orbit is well documented. Effusive testimonials to his qualities as a wildly unconventional character, a generous host and loyal friend come from Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone and Tom Arnold, among others. (Sharon Stone, whom Gordon dated for a couple of years in the early '90s, is a no-show.)

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Evidence surfaces throughout the film of Gordon’s compassion and personal integrity. This is underscored by his eventual fatigue with the “what you are, not who you are” aspect of Los Angeles culture. There’s a sad irony in the fact that after working most of his life to increase the fame of his clients, he comes to reject fame as something fundamentally unhealthy.

While Gordon is honest about the limited duration of his relationships and marriages, a few more probing questions in that area might not have been amiss. Instead it’s more or less shrugged off as too much time spent looking after other people’s lives at the expense of his own.

The closest he has come to having a family is the four orphaned kids -- grandchildren of a former girlfriend -- whose upbringing he financed after their mother died.

Stuffed with tasty archive footage, photographs and the occasional knowingly cheesy re-enactment of a key episode, the documentary is brisk and engaging but feels somewhat scattered. Myers’ inexperience as a filmmaker shows in its choppy narrative. A seasoned director might perhaps have traced a more robust through-line in Gordon’s gradual transition from the 1970s hedonist wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “No Head No Backstage Pass” to the spiritual middle-aged BuJew yearning for a child. But the film concludes on a poignant note with the disclosure that he hasn’t yet given up hope.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentation; A&E IndieFilms)

With: Shep Gordon, Mike Myers, Alice Cooper, Anne Murray, Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Arnold, Willie Nelson, Steven Tyler, Emeril Lagasse
Production company: Nomoneyfun Films
Director: Mike Myers
Producer: Beth Aala
Executive producers: Molly Thompson, Robert DeBitetto, David McKillop
Directors of photography: Andreas von Scheele, Michael Pruitt-Bruun
Editor: Joseph Krings
Sales: WME Global, A&E
No rating, 85 minutes.