Overview: A muscular, theatrical rock star faces ups and downs over a career spanning decades. Dark Sky Films; 2015; Not Rated; 84 Minutes.
Steel-Willed: In two different moments in I Am Thor, the biographical documentary for which he serves as subject, Jon Mikl Thor unblinkingly compares his musical act, featuring a unique combination of superhero imagery, mythology-influenced theatrics, bodybuilding exhibition, and hard rock music, to Led Zepellin and Bob Dylan. As the movie’s audience, we have no need to have these comparisons expounded upon. Even though most viewers will be largely unfamiliar with Thor’s music prior to starting I Am Thor, by the time we hear Thor make flattering comparisons of himself against two of the biggest acts in the history of rock, we know him enough to surmise that he believes in the relative sentiment. As an artist, Thor has a focus, vision, and determination that one can not help but admire, even when it seems to work against his favor.
At one point in the film’s recalling of his career, Thor declines a formal invitation to sing for the now-legendary Misfits. He also parts ways with a manager who was preparing to launch a global tour that would have likely catapulted his act and his band into super-stardom. In either of these scenarios, if Thor had chosen the opposite, he likely would have been a huge success by the terms that we, as consumers of pop culture, understand the term. But Thor’s definition of success has its own conditions, and the realization of his vision is perhaps the highest prioritized.
You Won’t See Errol Morris Do That: There have been a handful of documentaries over the last decade that attempt to highlight an artistic career in its late phases by calling to the artist the attention that was missed in his/her heyday, see Anvil, Searching for Sugarman, 20 Feet from Stardom, A Band Called Death, and Kung Fu Elliot, just to name a few. I Am Thor director Ryan Wise succeeds where those sorts of films commonly misstep by surrendering his narrative to an honest observation of his subject. Wise never frames Jon Mikl Thor in order to outright ridicule or criticize his subject. The rocker’s failures are seen as simple factual chapters of his career, even when the documented storyline might allow or ask for humorous overstatement. Even the inherent weirdness of his act is never a punchline when there is something beautiful about the artist’s confidence in his untested form. The film likewise smartly avoids shaping an artificial narrative throughout, yielding again to the complexity of its subject. When it feels as though Wise might be moving into a somewhat hokey and artificially conclusive high note, it’s Thor who decides that the moment isn’t right for that, and so it isn’t right for the movie.
The One Happening: In the middle of I Am Thor, the film comes to the chapter of Thor’s life in which his first wife files for divorce. The split is presented matter-of-factly, followed by a home video shot taken by Thor of his wife walking out the door and him providing voiceover. I was instantly reminded of a quote from Already Dead, a novel by Denis Johnson: “I make the road. I draw the map. Nothing just happens to me…I’m the one happening.” On its own, this might be a dangerous mindset to have, except Thor pairs it with a good heart and an adopted definition of success that is living and malleable, never formalized. Thor is always in the driver’s seat of his life and his career, but he’s also always adjusting the coordinates of destination and picking up the right people along the way. Ultimately, Thor finds success on his own, by carving his deserved legacy into the lives of his fans, friends, and bandmates. And he finds this success without the film’s meta-influence. Thor would have succeeded to this degree with or without Wise, which is what makes our witness of his triumph so special.
Overall: I Am Thor is a very special portrait of a strange and beautiful artist, a film that exudes a personable energy and humanity that isn’t easily achieved in standard rock documentaries.