His hair is frizzy and graying. Crow’s feet line his craggy eyes. Sideburns sprout from behind both jowls, like worn brillo pads. Onstage, this bipolar, schizophrenic performance artist squeals like a wounded seal, ranting about greedy record industry honchos while banging out a single guitar chord. Offstage, the same songwriter is more approachable, smiling ear to ear and speaking in nervous, pressured bursts of verbiage, his words racing at speeds on par with fellow fast-talker Martin Scorsese. He’s Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, who might pass for a skid-row version of David Crosby after he’s pissed on an electric fence.
“Wild Man” Fischer haunts the same lonely fringes of society inhabited by R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and G.G. Allin. After crooning on the streets of L.A. for handouts, he was discovered by Frank Zappa in the late sixties. Fischer’s1968 Zappa-produced debut album, “An Evening with Wild Man Fischer,” boasts a cover depicting the wild-eyed singer holding a knife to a cardboard likeness of his mother, and contains such hypnotically perverse ditties as “Merry Go Round.” Fischer’s sound is a startling brew of tortured, high-pitched whines and cheerful barks coupled with lyrics both nursery-rhyme simple and world-wise cynical, and its novelty has endured longer than one might expect. After a falling-out with temporary mentor Zappa, he recorded with Rhino Records into the late eighties, and attracted a loyal base which includes Weird Al Yankovich, “Lost in Space” star Bill Mumy, Rosemary Clooney, and Devo mastermind Mark Mothersbaugh.
Directed by Josh Rubin and Jeremy Lubin, “Derailroaded” is a funhouse mirror of a movie that brilliantly reflects the warped, fractured chapters of Fischer’s unique life story. It’s also one of the best documentaries of recent years, joining “Crumb” and “Monster Road” as an unusually intimate look at how we use art to channel our darkest, most disturbing human tendencies. We watch Fisher go from street bum to counterculture icon, sharing a stage with Janis Joplin and other rock luminaries. Then, as this one-time flavor of the week ages and returns to obscurity, we watch him speak about his past fame in a painfully love-hate way. One moment, he’s chomping at the bit to get back into the game, before suddenly lashing out at all of the industry bean-counters and one-time executives whom he claims ripped him off.
As with all great documentaries, “Derailroaded” challenges its audience to do some heavy soul-searching. Is Fischer a misunderstood, neglected, genius? Or is he merely a bad singer who lucked into fifteen minutes of fame via Zappa’s fleeting interest? Is he a sick man being exploited by callous, jaded opportunists, or a paranoid hanger-on who alienates those who offer help? It’s this last question that lingers longest after “Derailroaded”’s end credits have rolled. On one hand, viewers could argue that Fischer’s quirky, mania-powered “pep” is being used, Jerry Springer style, as a cynical freak show. On the other hand, Fischer’s music does convey genuine emotion. A real person exists behind his startling shrieks and strange lyrical imagery. In this commercialized age of “American Idol” and Britney, that’s no small feat.
In her 1996 book “Touched By Fire,” Kay Redfield Jameson makes the case that without the impassioned moods that make us uniquely human, the world would miss out on the inspired works of such bipolar artists as Lord Byron and Vincent Van Gogh. Do we really want to live in a world void of “Wild Man” Fischers, and all their unique forms of creative expression? Savor the fascinating, thought-provoking “Derailroaded,” and you be the judge.