By NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
What do shock rocker Alice Cooper, comedian Groucho Marx, ultra-wholesome chanteuse Anne Murray, buxom bombshell Raquel Welch, and soul crooner Teddy Pendergrass have in common? You are probably scratching your head, trying to draw a connection between these disparate performers. As detailed in the documentary, “Supermensh,” the answer is that all five and a panoply of others were all managed at some juncture by Shep Gordon.
In addition, Gordon launched the career of Emeril Lagasse and is credited by some as being responsible for the celebrity chef phenomenon. As if that’s not enough, through his work with the Tibet Fund, Gordon became friends with the Dalai Lama.
How could someone, who hobnobbed with so many stars, manage to avoid the harsh glare of public attention himself? The film, lovingly directed by funnyman, Mike Myers, suggests that Gordon is the best known show business persona, who regular folks have never heard of.
Following college graduation in 1968, Gordon was selling pot at the Hollywood Landmark Hotel to a bunch of counterculture entertainers. While there, he encountered Janis Joplin, who punched him in the face. The following day, Jimi Hendrix, made an off-handed remark that Gordon should become a talent manager. Gordon had no background in the field, but realized that he needed a cover for his real business.
As the film describes, Gordon’s schtick is epitomized by his creation of Alice Cooper’s notorious persona. He conjured up a litany of outlandish gimmicks to capture attention for the mascara-wearing, gender-bending performer with a female moniker. Gordon negotiated Cooper’s inclusion on the line-up of Toronto’s Rock ‘N Roll Revival. The show marked John Lennon’s historic first public performance after the Beatles broke up. Gordon waived an appearance fee in exchange for the coveted spot immediately before the headlining Plastic Ono Band. For the show, Gordon engineered the stunt in which Cooper tossed a live chicken into the audience. They mercilessly ripped apart the poor creature. Sensationalized media accounts insisted that Cooper had bitten off the chicken’s head and ritualistically drank its blood. Gordon continued to design stage shows for Cooper, which featured smashing the heads of baby dolls as well as mock hangings, electrocutions, and guillotine decapitations.
When ticket sales flagged for an Alice Cooper show at London’s Wembley Stadium, Gordon masterminded an ingenious stunt. He plastered a truck with publicity posters of the musician posing nude while coyly holding a boa constrictor to obfuscate his genitalia. The vehicle’s driver was then instructed to feign a breakdown on Piccadilly Circus in the midst of a Friday rush hour. Press coverage of the massive traffic jam, with the controversy-generating posters looming prominently in the background, triggered a sell-out.
Mike Myers, the “Saturday Night Live” alumnus, star of “Wayne’s World,“ lead in the “Austin Powers” franchise, and the voice of Shrek, makes a smooth transition to his role as director. During a dark period in Myers‘ life, he crashed at Gordon’s Maui beachfront mansion. Myers clearly feels a profound sense of gratitude to his former host. As a consequence, his film is a hagiographic puff piece rather than a balanced treatment of the subject. This documentary tries to make the case that Gordon is an anomaly within the seamy world of show biz — a stand-up guy with a sense of compassion. The bald, bespeckled, 66-year old Gordon provides a number of anecdotes. These nostalgic reminiscences are enhanced by a nice collection of archival photos and footage. “Supermensch” is punctuated by gushing testimonials from some A-List celebrities, including Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Willie Nelson, Aerosmith’s lead singer Steven Tyler, and Sammy Hagar of Van Halen.
Despite its brevity, the film contains some obvious padding. It would benefit from some taut editing. Excising the gratuitous reenactments and the self-indulgent ramblings of Tom Arnold would be good steps in the right direction.
What is the value of celebrity? Is it worth the price? As Gordon himself admits, “There’s nothing about fame that I’ve ever seen that’s healthy.” For emphasis, he ruefully adds, “It has no intrinsic value.”
“Supermensch” is a modestly interesting biopic. More importantly, it offers a cautionary tale about the perils of celebrity and how easily public perception is dictated by crass PR. However, the film spurns a certain discomfiting reality about the methods used to turn untalented non-entities into bogus celebrity icons. The same morally bankrupt techniques are exploited by craven politicians to whip up war hysteria. Moreover, our consumer culture relies upon a constant barrage of hype to brainwash unduly credulous customers into believing that cigarettes, carbonated sugar water, and other toxic products are indispensable to their lives.
Is someone, who made a career out of cynically manipulating public perceptions, really such a saint … or are we simply being duped once again?
**1/2 R (for language, sexual references, nudity and drug use) 84 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.