A Canadian competitive bodybuilder-turned-heavy-metal frontman and B-horror-movie star you probably haven’t heard of — though given that unique resume, you might well wonder why — is the subject of “I Am Thor.” Ryan Wise’s documentary pays bemusedly affectionate tribute to a no-longer-quite-so-buff rock god still doggedly pursuing, at age 60, a stardom that never quite materialized. Like another Canuck headbanger portrait, 2008’s sleeper success “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” this mix of real-life “Spinal Tap” antics and underdog rooting value should attract a cult following via fest play and niche sales.
Born in Vancouver in 1953, Jon Mikl Thor followed an older brother’s footsteps into bodybuilding at age 14, eventually winning some top prizes. (At one point here we see him chatting at Comic-Con with erstwhile “Incredible Hulk” Lou Ferrigno, to whom he was a runner-up in one such competition.) In love with music, however, he wasn’t content just to flex his biceps, breaking into showbiz via some very Me Decade nudie stage musicals and other oddball enterprises that didn’t quite crash into the big leagues. (Most bizarre is a clip from “Red, Hot and Blue,” a Vegas stage show presented by talkshow host Merv Griffin in which “muscle rock” practitioner Thor bellows a song and orally inflates a hot-water bottle until it bursts, while audience and backing musicians look on in disbelief.)
Returning from the States to Toronto, he invented the character of “legendary rock warrior” Thor, allegedly nodding more toward Norse mythology than Marvel Comics. He assembled a band, wrote songs and got signed to RCA Canada, which released his 1977 debut, “Keep the Dogs Away” — a forgotten gem of glam rock closer to T-Rex than to Motorhead. But a murky struggle between label and management (during which Thor was supposedly briefly kidnapped) left album and act orphaned. Thor decided to soldier onward, but neglectful or misguided management remained a constant problem, which he blames for the lack of commercial breakthrough.
Nonetheless, he released several more discs (now much more in a metal mode), toured a flashy concert show (which invariably included strongman stunts), and attempted to become a movie star via several low-grade genre pics. The last of these, 1987’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Nightmare” (which he also wrote and produced), features one of the most awesomely campy climaxes in cinema: After 70 minutes or so of grade-Z slasher horror that decimates his fictional band members, Thor’s presumably ordinary mortal rocker strips down to a studded jockstrap, suddenly gains extreme hair volume, and reveals himself as “the Archangel Triton.” He then battles a tall, thin puppet Satan, who throws one-eyed starfishes at him.
Unfortunately, 1987 was also the year that constant stress and money woes provoked a nervous breakdown. Thor retreated with his wife, girly-mag model/editor Rusty Hamilton, aka Cherry Bomb, into suburban domestic life. But a decade later (to her eventual marriage-ending dismay), he reunited his band and began recording and touring anew.
Pic crams Thor’s backstory into its first 25 minutes, giving regrettably short shrift to various colorful elements, notably the tacky movies that also included the “Mystery Science Theater 3000”-embraced “Zombie Nightmare” and the “Police Academy” knockoff “Recruits.” The focus then shifts to his never-ending “comeback” attempts, which involve a revolving door of backing musicians and a lot of sketchy couch-surfing interludes better suited to 20-year-old punk rockers. But no matter how pitiful the turnout, the spectators agree Thor gives his all onstage. There’s a happy ending here as he and his original bandmates discover they’ve “made it,” after all — at least in Scandinavia, where they’re received like royalty by fans who get autographs tattooed on their rears, and avow “I can die happy now” once they’ve seen the act live.
Striking the right good-natured tone between admiration and amusement, “I Am Thor” isn’t particularly slickly or imaginatively packaged, but its straightforward DIY presentation feels apt.
Slamdance Film Review: 'I Am Thor'
Reviewed online, San Francisco, Jan. 15, 2015. (In Slamdance Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 84 MIN.
(Documentary) A Blue Lame 61 Prods. presentation. (International sales: Circus Road Films, Los Angeles.) Produced by Ryan Wise, Alan Higbee.
Directed, edited by Ryan Wise. Camera (color, HD), Wise; music, Christopher Ward; sound, Andrew Bartlett, Chad Hammel; re-recording mixer, Lisa K. Fowle.
Jon Mikl Thor, Mike Favata, Steve Price, Keith Zazzi, Frank Meyer, Bruce Duff, Rusty Hamilton, Betsy Wise, Nik Turner, Frank Soda, Michael Pilmer.