Review: Supermensch — the Legend of Shep Gordon

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If the art of documentary is all about finding someone with the right story to tell, Shep Gordon is the motherlode. Here's a man who was beaten up by Janis Joplin, was briefly married a Playboy playmate, dated Sharon Stone (who introduced him to the Dalai Lama), invented the modern celebrity chef, and shared custody of a cat named "Mr Sensitive" with Cary Grant.

Gordon made his name in the seventies, managing a string of acts from Alice Cooper to Teddy Pendergrass and Blondie. With fingers firmly fixed on the public’s pulse, he developed their careers as much by ramping up media attention as he did by choosing the right producer. When a live chicken was tossed onstage at an early Cooper show and torn to pieces by the audience, it was Gordon who threw it. Those panties wrapped around the School’s Out vinyl? That was Gordon, too. And when Alice couldn’t sell out Wembley Arena (then the Empire Pool) in 1972, Gordon arranged for a van carrying a billboard of a naked Cooper, tackle concealed by a snake, to break down in Piccadilly Circus. The TV cameras showed up, and the show sold out.

Mike Myers’ directorial debut seeks to make sense of the stories, mixing interviews with Gordon with quotes from talking heads including Michael Douglas, Steven Tyler, Sammy Hagar and Willie Nelson. Myers’ obvious enthusiasm for Gordon, who comes across like a convivial, popular version of Larry David, is such that it’s all a bit of a love-in (Myers also speaks enthusiastically on-camera as well as shaping the action off it), and you won’t find a dissenting voice throughout the film. For a man who claims that the three things a successful manager must remember are, “1) Get the money; 2) Always remember to get the money; and 3) Never forget to always remember to get the money”, this is some trick.

So it’s a hagiography, but it’s an enormously entertaining one. The anecdotes fly thick and fast, the huge affection for Gordon certainly seems genuine enough, and his apparent generosity is stunning: when the daughter of a former girlfriend is killed in an accident, he becomes a surrogate father to her four children. By the end of the film he’s being painted as almost saintly, Mother Teresa in shades and board shorts.

Any quibbles? Grown men sniggering about underage girls on-camera in 2014 is just weird (another thing the successful rock manager must remember is to “get underage girls out of the room” after the show, nudge-nudge), and you wonder if Myers’ natural inclination towards comedy tempts him to pump more air than necessary into stories to truly make them soar. After the Piccadilly Circus shenanigans, the film cuts to a plummy, flustered newsman claiming the stunt to be “so momentous that historians may one day view it as a landmark in the decline of the British Empire”. Really? Is this accurate documentary making, or an attempt by Myers to inject a little Austin Powers into the film?

Either way, it doesn’t need the boost. Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is gleefully put together and packed with charm. And if you ever wondered what it would be like to lose your clothes at the Playboy Mansion, or embark on a mammoth, three-day, last-man-standing-wins drugs bender, or boil up some yak’s milk tea for the Dalai Lama, or about the inspiration for the airplane scene in Almost Famous… the stories are all here.

Read Classic Rock’s interview with Shep Gordon.