Saturday, October 17, 2015

I Am Thor

Recently, I attended a regional premiere of I Am Thor; a documentary about the life of Jon Mikl Thor as he struggles to achieve fame in his music career.  Yes, long before there was Chris Hemsworth playing Thor in The Avengers, Jon Mikl Thor lived as Thor the Metal Avenger.  Thor wrote and starred in the film Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, a campy B-movie classic.  As a fan of cult movies, it is one of my personal favorites.  All in all, I am very glad I did because, not only is the film fantastic, I ended up meeting Rusty Hamilton at the screening.  If you don’t already know who that is then you will learn shortly.

The film opens with Thor talking about his early life as a Canadian youngster and about how he always wanted to be a superhero.  Nothing surprising there, as most kids love superheroes.  He would wear a Superman outfit under his clothes at school and take them off to be Superman.  Interesting, but nothing too crazy yet.  But get this, at recess he would get the other kids to throw bricks at him in order to show off his superhuman invulnerability.  Thor recollects how after getting struck in the forehead warm blood gushed down to his eyes.  Holy shit!  But even with this juvenile head trauma (or some might argue because of) he never gave up this desire and it would go on to help define his later life.

Young Jon Mikl also learned accordion from his family which served as his musical introduction.  With the advent of the Beatles and rock music he ditched what must have seemed like a painfully uncool instrument at the time and learned bass guitar.  When his older brother introduced him to weight training and bodybuilding he used rock as his prime motivator and he attributes the music to pushing him forward and helping him do the sets and reps that built him his award winning physique.  While still a teen he had won numerous bodybuilding competitions including Mr. Canada and Mr. USA. 

The audience learns how he worked as a nude waiter for a period of time, during the free love era of the 70’s.  He was the most popular waiter, with all the ladies fawning over him, until eventually his muscular body was overshadowed by a new waiter who was just an ordinary guy who was hung like a mule.  According to someone who had seen an earlier version of the film the first version didn’t feature the nude picture of Thor from those days that made the final cut.  I’m not sure why they bothered to censor the picture in such a half assed way.  The—ahem-- hammer was censored with a black bar but you get to see all of his pubic hair.  Eh, I can’t claim to be that shocked or scandalized.  I had already seen Thor’s ass in Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare. 

John Mikl formed an ill-fated band named Body Rock which broke down because some of the other members hated each other.  When one of the ladies of the group hit a male member over the head with a chair the band came to a dramatic end.  But from the demise of Body Rock came the emergence of Thor, the rock warrior.

While working in Las Vegas as a performer, Thor appeared on the Merv Griffin Show and seemed prepped for a meteoric rise. With his new Thor alter ego he assembled a band and released his debut album Keep the Dogs Away.  He combined his music with some showmanship tricks he learned as a bodybuilder and on stage he would regularly bend steel bars between his teeth and pop hot water bottles through sheer lung power.   This brought him to the attention of Rusty Hamilton, who simultaneously worked as both editor and model at Cheri magazine.  Rusty and Thor fell in love and she joined the band where she worked as bandmate and manager using her magazine connections.  The two wed and made for an awesome rock star couple.

Now is the part where the story gets weird.  As Thor seems ready to be the next big thing, he gets a new producer, the man responsible for getting Bruce Springsteen on the covers of both Time and Newsweek at the same time, a feat unheard of up until then.  His ascent to fame seemed all but assured.  The only problem was the guy was a nutcase who was a part of some strange new age religion.  Out of the blue, the guy decides that Thor needs to rewrite all of his songs because the god Seth told him to.  Thor and Rusty were understandably not too enthused to hear this. 

I am not sure the movie ever said who the producer was but I checked and his name is Mike Appel.  He even still has some classic Thor songs on his official website.  From my research, he also was the producer for another of my favorite bands Sir Lord Baltimore and wrote the lyrics to their songs.  Old Seth was apparently no slouch in the lyrics department, I will give him that.  Appel may have been a lunatic but he helped write the amazing Kingdom Come album.  Learning this blew my mind! But Appel is clearly not squeaky clean:  when Bruce Springsteen sued him he opted to settle out of court. 

While the movie never makes it clear by who exactly (you can probably guess), Thor and Rusty were kidnapped at gunpoint, held captive for a year while being forced to create a rock opera.  The production looked incredible-- chariots on stage, Amazons, little people, and other wonders.  They were released before its completion, but this ended the possibility of the rock opera ever seeing the light of day.  Even worse, now that they had been targeted by some sort of organized crime, other producers were afraid to work with them.  No charges were ever pressed.  His career went up in flames.

Thor tried for a period of time to live a normal life and just be Jon Mikl once again.  But he learned that he couldn’t hang up the hammer that easily.  Eventually the desire to return to music overcame him.  Rusty, however, couldn’t deal with it anymore.  Frankly, after the crap she had to go through, I understand completely.  She had once been the biggest supporter of her husband’s aspirations but now launching a comeback of a career which had brought them so much pain and turmoil proved too much for her.  After two decades the couple separated.

No longer at his youthful peak of fitness, the older Thor reunites with his old bandmates guitarist Steve Price and drummer Mike Favata as they chase the fame and recognition that they had never received.  In spite of no longer looking the part of a rock god Thor still proves capable of putting on a very entertaining show.  In an uncommon turn of events, Thor has actually gotten heavier over the years subverting the usual course of rock bands take as they age.  A large part of this is Thor’s voice deepened substantially since his glam rock 70’s era and instead of ineptly trying to sing in the same manner as he did then he simply went in a more metal direction. 

The band resumed but played in venues with very limited people.  Those that show up get their world rocked but still no acclaim.  Thor has a nervous breakdown and suffers from depression.  He speaks very openly and candidly about this time which I thought showed real courage.  If even the one true wielder of Mjolnir can speak openly about mental illness then I think we are doing well as a society and more people have a chance to genuinely beat it.

But through the fog he reemerges just as determined as ever.  If Thor has a true superpower it is his force of will.  You just cannot keep this man down.  Over the years he has tried to give up numerous times but he always ends up going back to chasing his dream.  Even having a heart attack didn’t permanently deter him.  Even as his career takes a toll on his health he keeps soldiering on.  Thor is doing better now and has remarried.  

The film ends with Thor on tour in Finland and Sweden where they receive a much better reception than in the U.S.  In other reviews of the film they attribute this to Thor simply being popular there.  While I personally am a fan of Thor I saw this final bit a little differently.  People were rather indifferent to seeing Mike Favata at first because the majority were unfamiliar with him.  It wasn’t until they saw the show that they started losing their shit.  Sweden is a pretty metal country and Finland is probably the most metal of all countries on Earth.  Let’s see, Finland has Hanoi Rocks, Stratovarius, Sonata Arctica and Children of Bodom.  Those are just Finnish bands they have that I can think of off the top of my head.  Thor wasn’t phenomenally famous there it is just at the end of the concert he had won them over.  Trust me, this was something he damn well deserved to happen.  The man even spat out several of his own teeth on stage while trying to bend steel in his mouth but he still finished bending it just because he refused to let down the crowd! He was passionate about what he does and there the fans are truly passionate as well.  Since so many more people who love metal there than in the U.S. he was just beginning to reap the benefits of potential stardom.

Overall, it was a great film.  I would have liked it to talk a little bit more about Thor’s film career as it is only briefly touched upon but thematically it was the right choice as it would just bog down the narrative.  My biggest complaint is just the fact that Thor hasn’t yet fully received his happy ending.  Thor’s music and theatrics may not be for everyone but I know that there is a larger audience out there for him. 

After the showing I spoke with Rusty.  She seemed surprised I recognized her, which I thought was very modest.  She is out of the music business today but had nothing bad to say about her ex-husband.   Sorry for those out there hoping for an in depth tell-all about how big an asshole Thor is.  It seems he is, in truth, a great guy.  Buff guys tend to get seen as dumb meathead bullies.  But Thor is a polite, warm guy who is himself a comic fan and has more in common with them than jocks who would denigrate them.  Mike Favata compares him to a puppy.  One fan was impressed that after making breakfast for Thor and his band Thor was so appreciative that he insisted on doing the dishes for him!

Rusty also told me some other interesting tidbits.  For example, she used the name Pantera while a member of Thor’s band before the band Pantera came about.  She was sure the band hadn’t done this intentionally, and she had used so many other stage names anyway, she was fine with letting the band use it.  She also admitted that she had never seen a picture of Thor’s new wife until seeing the movie.  Another surprise for her was seeing Thor drink a beer in one scene because she said when he was young he would never touch alcohol, even when he was working in Vegas where everyone would offer you free drinks and be offended if you turned them down.

To anyone who likes underdog stories, band documentaries, or just rock/metal music in general I recommend you check this movie out.  It was worth the 15 years it took to finish it.  When it comes out on DVD I advise you to ride your chariot to the store and buy it.