There’s something kind of offbeat and almost eerie about rock documentaries. Experiencing the stories—warts and all—of these rock gods can go any number of ways, ranging from uplifting to disastrous, the latter being the order of the day for most punk and metal bands.
During the ’70s and ’80s, Jon Mikl Thor was a bit of a cult figure in the rock scene. Equal parts body builder, circus huckster and punkish pioneer, Thor’s career was plagued with false starts and missed opportunities. While releasing notable proto-metal/punk albums and starring in a couple cult films, the flamboyant musician and his band were never able to channel his musical muscle into mainstream success. Finally, after imploding numerous times, he vanished from the scene, becoming a suburban recluse. About 10 years into his exile, he decided to give things another go. Hence, the documentary I Am Thor.
The film does a fine job of introducing Thor to the masses, featuring clips, vignettes, interviews, TV appearances and concert footage, giving the viewer a strong sense of what this guy and his band were all about. At one point, it seemed like Thor could do no wrong. Hanging out with the likes of KISS, Thor’s debut studio album Keep the Dogs Away showed promise, selling well in his native Canada and bringing further exposure to the former Mr. Canada and Mr. USA. But whether or not he experienced some bad breaks or sabotaged things himself, the momentum slowed after the album’s release. The same pattern would persist during the ‘80s as Thor sought to capitalize on the glam-metal boom happening, but like before, shit didn’t pan out.
I Am Thor captures the aftermath in fine form. While it might lack the polish of a big-budget feature film, it gets down and dirty with one of rock’s more under-appreciated figures while at the same time, tugging at the heartstrings a bit. It also does a deft job at highlighting Thor’s cross-genre appeal across the punk and metal spectrum (Dark Sky Films).
One film that flies in the face of the typical hard rock doc is Forever and a Day, which showcases Teutonic metal merchants The Scorpions. The film highlights the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation in Cold War-era Germany and focuses most on the two original members, vocalist Klaus Meine and guitarist Rudolph Schenker.
Shot in crisp hi-def, Forever chronicles the band a few years back as it tours Bangkok and Russia on what was supposedly its final outing. At some point, plans change and the band decides to put off retirement until 2015 to commemorate its 50th, and release an album of new material.
I have mixed feelings about this one. On one hand, you’ve got a true band of brothers celebrating a massively successful legacy dating back five decades. Through it, we learn a little bit about its different phases along with highlights such as its participation in the Moscow Peace Festival in 1989, where a handful of Western groups played behind the Iron Curtain. But on the flipside, this documentary takes place very much in the now. There’s not much about the history that would really inform newer fans or those unfamiliar with the band. And there’s scant info on how the band morphed from hazy psych-metal merchants to radio-rock behemoths. There’s also little in terms of complete live performances that many fans would crave.
Instead, Forever and a Day feels more like one very long conversation with a few musical snippets tossed in for good measure. Director Katja von Garnier includes loads of stunning landscape visuals to give the film an expansive feel, but in terms of true rock ‘n’ roll dirt, there’s not much of it. The fact that it’s also in Germany (with English subtitles) doesn’t help with the flow. For die-hard fans, Forever and a Day is a candid glimpse into the band during its final phase. But for the rest of us, it could use a little more bite. (MVD)
The Jam almost singlehandedly revived the ’60s mod movement during the later ’70s and beyond with its scrappy, R&B-infused take on punk rock. While there were several other mod bands surfacing, none had the universal appeal of the UK trio. Much of this comes down to the deft songwriting prowess and charisma of leader Paul Weller, who crafted such classics as “In The City” and “That’s Entertainment.” The band broke up during the early ’80s with Weller forming soul-shakers Style Council before embarking on a very successful solo career.
The band’s story has now been officially documented on About the Young Idea, a documentary that follows the its early ’70s origins up through its breakup in 1982. The story is moved along by interviews with Weller and former bandmates Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, as well as loads of concert and archival footage. The Blu-ray/DVD set also features a live performance from the classic German TV show Rockpalast, shot in 1980. For fans of The Jam or the late ’70s mod/punk scene, it doesn’t get much better than this. The thoughtful mix of interviews, lost footage and The Jam’s essential music is top-notch. (Eagle Vision)
More recent DVD and Blu-Ray releases…
Game of Thrones
As we approach the release of GoF’s sixth season in the coming months, now’s the time to reflect on what happened in 2015 and the implications it left us with. The biggest question is the fate of key player Jon Snow. Since author George RR Martin hasn’t gotten this far in his books yet, Master Snow’s outcome is anyone’s guess. In most of the online channels, no one believes he’s truly done. We shall see.
But Season 5 had loads of other things happening—from the Cersei Lannister’s stripped walk of shame to the hokey Sand Snakes, it was a doozie. Unfortunately, there was so much crammed into the measly 10 episodes that it often felt too busy and disjointed. This new release has all of it, including loads of bonus stuff that should satiate GoF freaks until the new season starts. (HBO)
Filmmaker and activist Morgan Spurlock is at it again with a documentary focusing on the making of the film Bulletproof. What makes the aforementioned flick significant is that it features actors and artists with disabilities at a place called Zeno Mountain Farm. The doc is both funny and endearing, as this rag-tag team of artists pull together to get the film made, overcoming obstacles and setbacks along the way. For fans of Spurlock, this one moves along without the usual controversy and does so with lots of heart. (Virgil Films)
I was never a pro-wresting follower, so I can’t talk too much about the technical aspects of the game. But, I do remember hearing about The Iron Sheik, the villain of the ring who played up his Iranian heritage as he pummeled his all-American opponents. The Sheik himself is actually Khosrow Ali Vaziri, former bodyguard for the Shah of Iran and participant in the 1968 Olympics.
As one of wrestling’s most celebrated bad guys—at the height of the sport’s popularity—you’d think The Sheik would have it all. But as this riveting documentary reports, such is not case. From substance abuse to the tragic loss of his daughter and a career renaissance via social media, The Sheik is a compelling story that even non-wrestling fans can appreciate. (Dark Sky Films)
The Keeping Room
Indie film it-girl Brit Marling returns in this unconventional Western, The Keeping Room. When a couple of wayward Civil War soldiers happen upon Augusta (Marling), she escapes their attempted assault and heads back to be with her sister and their female slave. When the thugs catch up with them, all-out chaos ensures.
Like other Marling films, The Keeping Room comes equipped with several twists and turns, which make it a tense, uncomfortable view, regardless of any cultural or political implications. (Cinedigm)
The New Girlfriend
Celebrated French director François Ozon has caused quite a stir over the past decade or so with films that dance around gender and sexuality issues, while infusing varying bits of seamy skull-fuckery. The New Girlfriend follows a similar formula. When Claire’s best friend dies, she vows to look after the baby and husband she left behind. She soon discovers the husband’s proclivity for women’s clothing and things begin to get strange from there on out. While it may sound kind of cutesy on the surface, like Tootsie or White Chicks, Ozon injects enough darkness and off-kilter quirk to keep things interesting, and slightly unnerving. (Cohen Media)
The Whip Hand
The ’50s were rife with paranoid anti-Communist films ranging from masterful and mysterious to downright silly. The Whip Hand falls somewhere in between. When a journalist hits a small town crawling with Reds, a diabolical plot is uncovered that includes none other than germ warfare! What saves film is the deft hand of cult Sci-Fi director William Cameron Menzies (Things To Come), who gives the film a dank, claustrophobic feel that heightens the tension and paranoia. (Warner Archive)
From Dusk Till Dawn: Season 2
Based on the Robert Rodriguez flick of the same name, this scrappy little show is big on shock and awe with dashes of svelte special effects. With a pulpy feel, the show follows the trials and tribulations of the brothers Gecko and their supernatural dealings. Season 2 saw the stories get more complex and move away from the original film. And for diehards and genre fans, it may do the trick. But otherwise, it lacks some of the nuance and twists of the first season and even more so, the original 1996 film—which ultimately keeps it from completely hitting the mark. (Entertainment One)
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles
With original content steeped in sulky soap opera fare, it’s a little tough to take a horror series created for the Lifetime Channel seriously. But with Christina Ricci in the lead, this one’s not nearly as dreadful as one might surmise. A few months after murderous vixen is acquitted, she attempts to lead a normal life along with her sister. Such attempts soon become futile and it’s only a matter of time before things go seriously awry. Christina Ricci is dreadfully delicious as Ms. Borden, hitting on the character in an animated fashion that carries the day for the series, even if it’s a little catty at times. (Sony)
Woman in the Moon
One of the first Sci-Fi films to hit the screen, Fritz Lang’s silent classic Woman in the Moon finally gets a long-awaited hi-def release. Convinced there is gold in the moon, a professor and some crooked businessmen hatch a plan to prove it, and get rich. Soon enough, get downright scandalous. Aside from Lang’s genius art direction and sets, there’s a melodramatic undercurrent in the somewhat corny love story, which doesn’t really help anything. But even that doesn’t detract from the innovative sets, especially in the actual rocket used in the film, which would prove to be highly influential in the real world. So much so, that the film was banned by the Nazis during WWII for being too similar to theirs.
This new release looks fantastic in its reworked transfer, making it a must-have for Sci-Fi fans. (Kino Lorber)
I initially thought about including this art film of sorts to counter-balance some of the carnage and chaos of this month’s column. But beyond that, Youth is an endearing film about the process of getting older and how we adjust to it. Starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, this buddy pic follows the two blokes on vacation in the Swiss Alps and their reflections on the past. While potentially too slow for some, the film thrives on its witty dialog and lush cinematography, not to mention quite a few cameos. (Fox)
This Sci-Fi B-movie from 1954 gets a plush hi-def revamp with this new release. Shot in 3D, Gog follows a group of lab scientists who meet their deaths at the hands of an unknown entity. Upon investigation, it comes to light that a pair of cleverly named robots Gog and Magog may be behind some of the mayhem. While much lower-budget than some of the heavies of the period like Forbidden Planet, the thing that makes Gog interesting is its quirky dialog and realistic scientific references. It’s got it all—high tech, rockets and evil robots, all shot in campy color that is looks fantastic with this new Blu-Ray transfer. (Kino Lorber)
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com.