I Am Thor Dir. Ryan Wise

[MPI Media Group/Dark Sky Films; 2015]

Styles: documentary, rockumentary
Others: Anvil! The Story of Anvil, This is Spinal Tap, American Movie

“We’re in scary times right now. There are people all over shitting their pants… we’re in a fear society.”
—Jon Mikl Thor

Not too many moons ago, I used to play songs on an acoustic guitar. In front of people, no less. I’ve never been very good at acoustic guitar or singing, but I mostly didn’t care about that: I just wanted to play shows, and playing that kind of music allowed me to play more shows (and hang out with more women) than I ever would had I stuck more to the noise gigs which I actually favored. There was a little more to my reasoning at the time than that, but only just. When I’d heard that someone had characterized me in this period as the most “sincere” musician in town, I was mortified: nothing could be further from the truth! It made me feel like a fraud, and not a particularly talented one.

It’s not an uncommon mistake to assume that the gentlest-seeming musicians, especially those with more gusto than technique, are the most earnest. I respectfully disagree. I’ve often said that someone like Sammy Hagar, for all his bluster and dipshittery, is infinitely more sincere than the likes of Jonathan Richman or Daniel Johnston: Richman can’t sing that well or write something even slightly obtuse, Johnston can’t sing or play or forget about Laurie, and both can’t seem to help themselves from creating their “warts and all” art. Sammy Hagar has something different. Dude couldn’t adopt an insincere affectation to save his life. He does what he does only because he thinks it is good, it pays the bills, and it makes people happy… any question of the value of that is our baggage, not his.

Jon Mikl Thor, the subject of I Am Thor, is the Sammy Hagar kind of earnest. As the leading practitioner of “Muscle Rock,” he often struggles (and boy, does he struggle more than I would have guessed before seeing this doc!), sometimes playing to next to nobody. He dresses up in ridiculous costumes that he wishes were as nice as what KISS gets to wear. He’s stars in movies like Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, with horrible dialogue and worse pacing, and gives it his all like it were Citizen fucking Kane. He compares himself to Bob Dylan innocently, somehow humbly.

More than anything, he keeps going. As the years take their toll, continuing to play shows that involve blowing up hot water bottles and bending steel bars are literally life-threatening for Thor (who didn’t quite maintain the ripped physique of his golden years), but the only thing worse than death would be to stop being Thor.

This story arc is hardly new. Anvil! The Story of Anvil and American Movie tell similar tales of dogged determination in the face of public indifference (and, quite possibly, the subjects’ own best interest), and like those films, I Am Thor is inspiring and pitiable in equal measure. It’s hard not to envy Thor’s lack of self-consciousness, his willingness to continually give all even when the rewards are scant. One wonders what somebody must have (or lack) upstairs that would make them so indomitable. Sure, he may have never conquered the charts with his goofball metal, but he’s crushed suicide attempts and nervous breakdowns, divorce and years of public indifference. That kind of strength, even moreso than Thor’s physical might, is nothing to shake a stick at.

As a film, I Am Thor is something of a budget operation, and nothing if not a passion project. Its structure is pedestrian, its production values middling. Then again, you could say the same about Thor’s music and live show. Both are pretty entertaining, and both are bound to make a particular subset of rock & roll nerds very happy.

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