“Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon” is this year’s “20 Feet from Stardom,” a feel-good story about a business mostly associated with back-stabbing, egomaniacal excess and a perverse value system, that is to say show business.
Both films get behind the scenes, mostly in the music business, to tell an uplifting story of unknown individuals who make careers for others while mostly remaining out of the limelight.
This film comes from Mike Myers, the comic performer, producer and actor behind “Austin Powers” and “Shrek.” Wanting to do a passion project rather than a money project, Myers pays tribute to a longtime friend, and legend within the industry, Shep Gordon. The tribute is, as the title suggests, as much to his humanity as his ability to make deals.
Who is Shep Gordon? you ask.
Don’t blame you. He flew beneath my radar too, which is somewhat embarrassing for a former trade reporter although in my defense I reported on film, not music.
Shep —you get on a first-name basis with this guy long before the film finishes — is a manager, whose clients range across the show business spectrum including even Groucho Marx in his last days and many “celebrity chefs,” a phenomenon Shep pretty much invented — Marx and the chefs all managed pro bono, mind you.
Shep is mostly tied to the career of Alice Cooper, whom he managed to great success and even in retirement continues to handle. Along the way he brushed shoulders with just about any and every celebrity, to the point you might get the impression he knows no one who isn’t famous.
And yet Shep has come to the conclusion that there is something fundamentally unhealthy about celebrityhood, whether that means the overdose deaths of two people he met his first night in L.A., Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, or the corrosive impact it’s had on his other show-biz chums.
It was Hendrix, in fact, who gave Shep the lasting career advice: “Are you Jewish? You should be a manager.”
As a convenient way to peddle drugs and hang out with its consumers, he accepted the advice and took on Alice Cooper before anyone knew that name belonged to a guy much less a musician.
Alice Cooper was not an easy act to break. Somehow Shep came to the party with exactly the right tools and promotional sense to create his on-stage persona, based largely on the principle that anything parents hate, kids will love. It was vaudeville essentially, albeit a ghoulish kind, which is what Groucho Marx recognized and why he came into Shep’s orbit.
The movie is organized around Shep’s skills as a raconteur. No one can tell a story better than he, with his huge giggle/laugh and sunny wit. Myers includes cheesy re-enactments of some of the tales or finds fabulous archival footage of Teddy Pendergrass, Anne Murray or the Dalai Lama — and when have those three ever been linked in the same sentence!
But shape these stories Myers does. The movie begins in a cloud of pot smoke, like a Cheech and Chong comedy, then moves through the heady days of hedonism in the ‘80s and ’90s and on to a spiritual awakening that finds the Jew embracing Buddhism, thus becoming a “BuJew,” even brewing Tibetan yak butter tea for the Dalai Lama.
Late in life, although not that late, Shep came to yearn for a family. He had dated only the most beautiful women, including Sharon Stone, but longed for a stable relationship. The closest he’s come is four orphaned kids — grandchildren of a former girlfriend — whose upbringing he financed after their mother died.
A short marriage did not produce the hoped-for results but Shep remains an optimist. Meanwhile the film, all the while dropping hints of his morality and compassion, delves more deeply into his search for spiritual growth following his retirement, hastened by the tragic auto accident that turned Pendergrass into a paraplegic.
The crowd that comes to visit his seaside compound on Maui include Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Arnold, Arnold Schwarzenegger and many of celebrity chefs, now rich thanks to his sense of wrongfulness in how restaurant cooks were being treated and paid back in the day.
The Maui compound will make anyone’s bucket list once this film and Shep Gordon are seen. A seemingly fatal illness brought a near-death experience to the man only a few weeks into shooting. But he made his “comeback,” in true show-biz fashion, and he continues hosting parties and seeking wisdom on his vista overlooking the vast Pacific.
Opens June 6, 2014 (Radius TWC)
Production company: A&E IndieFilms presents a Nomoneyfun Films production
Director: Mike Myers
Producer: Beth Aala Executive producers: Molly Thompson, Robert DeBitetto, David McKillop
Directors of photography: Andreas von Scheele, Michael Pruitt-Bruun
Editor: Joseph Krings
R rating, 84 minutes.