A documentary about its titular talent manager, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, directed by writer-actor Mike Myers, has the potential to be a slice of yawning, self-congratulatory star-fuckery of the highest order. After all, in addition to its famous director, it has plenty of recognizable celebrities who all line up to sing the praises of its subject. And yet, thanks to whip-smart pacing, this warm-hearted and unfussy nonfiction valentine emerges as an engaging portrait of a life less ordinary—a man who embraced and promulgated selflessness, even while, in his early days, indulging in druggy partying and frequently sporting a T-shirt that read, “No head, no backstage pass.”
Gordon looks like your average Florida retiree but sounds rather like the late Sydney Pollack, erudite and measured, except when his laugh—halfway between a chuckle and a goose’s honk—comes bursting forth. What helps further differentiate him is the fact that wild yarns trail him like a speedboat’s wake. A self-described social liberal who graduated from the University of Buffalo but quickly abandoned his dreams of becoming a probation officer, Gordon tells a story of occupational focusing so random and fanciful that it defies belief: a day after arriving in Los Angeles and taking a room at the Landmark Motor Hotel, he took some LSD, and later responded to the screams of a woman he thought was being sexually assaulted. She beat the crap out of him (turns out she was merely in the throes of ecstasy). The next day the duo apologized to one another, and since Gordon had a lot of marijuana, he shared it. The guy she was with suggested he become a manager. It turns out that woman and man were Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, respectively, and within a week Gordon was managing Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd.
Though the latter relationship would only last nine days (Gordon freely admits he had no idea what he was doing), his relationship with shock-rocker Cooper would endure decades. Gordon was less interested in the music than the manipulation of the moment, ginning up controversy wherever they went—trying to get Cooper arrested for wearing see-through clothes, and insisting on wrapping the vinyl records of Cooper’s 1972 album School’s Out in panties. He saw the value in marketed rebellion, but Gordon also had a conscience. Later, working with Teddy Pendergrass and other African-American artists, he sought to break free from the constraints of the so-called “chitlin’ circuit,” in which artists were frequently stiffed performance fees.
The first half of Supermensch is basically a hit parade of anecdotal insanity. The plane scene from Almost Famous is based on an actual incident in which both Gordon and a young Cameron Crowe were present. There are also tales of a three-day bender with Pendergrass (part of a called-bluff bet to manage him only if he could survive a wider array of illicit drugs), and the story of shared joint custody of his cat, Mr. Sensitive, with next-door neighbor Cary Grant. In its latter half, though, Supermensch matures, and comes to reflect some of the accrued wisdom of its subject, delving into his professional “coupon strategy” (helping others whenever he could) that would lead him to help settle the screwed-up finances of Groucho Marx for free.
That Supermensch isn’t punishingly reflective and critical kind of goes without saying. In addition to a few comments from Myers, who describes Gordon as “if Brian Epstein, Marshall McLuhan and Mr. Magoo had a baby,” the film also features warm reminiscences with Cooper, Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Emeril Lagasse, Willie Nelson and Mick Fleetwood. But the film is also rangy and in many ways unsentimental. It pushes through Gordon’s life in dogged fashion, and the innate twists and turns keep things interesting. Longtime romantic relationships dissolve with a shrug, and when Luther Vandross, angry about Gordon’s retirement, completely writes him out of his autobiography, it rates a tossed-off, one-sentence mention. A bit paradoxically, this shrugging, toughened tack allows for Gordon’s inherent decency and personal sentimentality to shine through, as well as a bit of tragedy.
Myers’ involvement means the film can afford music cues like Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” (a bit ironic, given that the duo first met when Myers was haggling with Gordon in an effort to secure Cooper’s “School’s Out” for Wayne’s World), and also a stylized bit in which Stallone imagines his own biopic of Gordon, Citizen Insane. But Supermensch isn’t merely a slapdash vanity project; it evidences some genuine storytelling chops. Myers, especially early on, shows a unique collagist sensibility, staging a few reenactments of Gordon’s recollections and intercutting them with extant film clips from period pieces.
“There’s nothing I’ve ever seen about fame that’s healthy, and it’s very hard to survive. It has no intrinsic value to itself,” shares Gordon near the film’s end. It’s a credit to both subject and film alike that Supermensch locates the pulse of truth and principle in that statement, amidst all of its wild stories.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy and Magill’s Cinema Annual, among other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.
Director: Mike Myers
Featuring: Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper, Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Emeril Lagasse, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Mick Fleetwood, Tom Arnold, Mike Myers
Release Date: June 6, 2014