The strange life and even stranger music of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer is the subject of Josh Rubin’s uneven documentary “Derailroaded.” While the backstory is compelling and the subject is utterly fascinating, the music (if you can call it that) is something of an endurance test and the filmmaker doesn’t seem to differentiate between tragedy and snide comedy.
Fischer is an icon of outsider music – someone who marches to the proverbial different drum, if you will. But Fischer doesn’t use a drum. He has a guitar, which he occasionally strums, but mostly he is screaming in a spastic voice – and screaming off-key, sadly enough, with clumsy sound effects added to punctuate his musical messages. Some people find this amusing and a few even find some artistic merit in it. Hey, more power to them; for me, it is a dumb joke which becomes tiresome almost immediately.
But Fischer’s life is far more interesting than his music. A combination of mental illness and a hostile family life doomed his childhood, resulting in violent outbursts that resulted in his being institutionalized as a teen following knife attacks against his mother and brother. As a young adult, he wound up in Los Angeles in 1968 and eked out a living creating impromptu songs on a street for money.
On and off, Fischer flirted with genuine stardom without actually getting roots planted in lasting fame. A solo appearance on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” generated genuine laughs, in which he upstaged both the show’s hosts and cast member Ruth Buzzi, but no further TV shots followed. Frank Zappa produced a double album of his music in 1969, but it was a major commercial failure and a nasty fight with Zappa (where Fischer threw a bottle that missed hitting Zappa’s infant daughter Moon) resulted in Zappa banning Fischer from his orbit. A chance meeting with the owners of Rhino Records (when it was still a music store) led to Fischer creating an off-beat jingle for the company, which later became Rhino’s first recording (and, inexplicably, a cult favorite in England). Today, he makes occasional appearances at venues where outsider music is worshipped.
But mostly, Fischer has existed in near-obscurity and near-poverty. Bouts with manic depression and paranoid schizophrenia have made him nearly impossible to work with, and efforts by several music industry personalities to rein him in almost always resulted in failure.
“Derailroaded” finds Fischer alternating wildly between bouts of paranoia (at one point he claims Steven Spielberg is out to kill him) and lucidity (when filmmaker Rubin states Fischer is a bigger star than Ruth Buzzi, Fischer stops and gives the director a harsh you-must-be-kidding glare).
The problem with “Derailroaded,” aside from Fischer’s music, is the fact the man is seriously ill and no one seems genuinely concerned for his well-being. The various talking heads gathered here, including radio personality Dr. Demento and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, prefer to view Fischer as an eccentric free spirit rather than an individual in need of genuine medical assistance. Fischer’s propensity to violent outbursts is viewed by some people in the film as the source of funny anecdotes. For my tastes, anyone who throws bottles or rides around with rusty scissors in his pockets is not funny.
Fans of outsider music will enjoy and appreciate “Derailroaded.” For those who never heard of Fischer before, proceed with caution.