Saturday, October 13, 2007

Merry go, merry go, merry-go-round

Just watched Derailroaded, a 2005 documentary about Larry "Wild Man" Fischer. I'd never heard of the movie until the Sundance Channel aired it a few months ago, though I was vaguely familiar with Fischer, mainly from his association with Frank Zappa (a musician I have never really seen the appeal of, no matter how much I feel I should) back in the late 1960s. As the film reveals, they had a pretty major falling out the night Larry threw a bottle that landed very near the head of young Moon Unit Zappa, which almost ended the life of the future "Valley Girl" singer.

All the movers and shakers of the "outsider music" scene make appearances, with the curatorial/sane perspective provided by Irwin Chusid, Dr. Demento, Barnes & Barnes (I had completely forgotten that my childhood surrogate Billy Mumy was half of the "Fish Heads" duo), Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, and Weird Al Yankovic, while there are also brief glimpses of Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis. (No word from the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.)

There's no way to resist comparing the film and its subject to The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which I wrote about here. Both depict men suffering with mental illness and obsessed with pop music who are embraced--some would say exploited--by "real" hipster musicians who help them release albums and send them on a bumpy road to cult stardom before their charm wears off and they become extremely difficult to deal with. Both men veer from moments of club-circuit notoriety to periods of near-total breakdown. You're never quite sure whether to laugh at or cry over what you see onscreen (well, sometimes it's easy to know), and you're forced to think about the huge gulf between observing these eccentric people from afar and actually having them in your life, calling you several times through the night every day for seven weeks until you have to change your phone number. There's even a Brian Wilson-inspired moment in each film; in Derailroaded, it's Fischer's awkward, moving cover of "In My Room," a song whose dark subtext he clearly understands. By coincidence--or one of Larry's wild conspiracies--both films came out in 2005, so it's hard to say one is ripping off the other. They're more like variations on the same theme.

I feel uncomfortable ranking them, but I must say that Devil strikes me as the stronger film, just as there seems to be more depth to Johnston's music and visual art than Fischer's. (On the other hand, the latter's "Merry-go-round" song is pretty damn catchy.) Both are worth your time, if you're interested in issues of creativity and mental illness, or in the music industry's ability to make a spectacle out of pretty much anything, no matter how tempting it might be to look away.

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