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Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry "Wild Man" Fischer (2004).

June 30, 2009

The Scoop:
If you haven’t become acquainted with Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, this is an excellent opportunity to do so.

Fischer was born with the double whammy of manic depression and paranoid schizophrenia, but buried inside that troubled mind is a strongly melodic musical sensibility. After an adolescence filled with family troubles and a stay in a mental institution, Larry found himself on the streets of Hollywood in the mid-1960s, where he survived by offering his songs – frenzied, a cappella outbursts of childlike enthusiasm mixed with the pathos of his life story – to passersby for a dime. He was found and befriended by Frank Zappa, who helped corral Fischer’s chaotic musical (and personal) energy for his memorable, if not always listenable, 1968 debut album, “An Evening With Larry ‘Wild Man’ Fischer.” After falling out with Zappa, the Wild Man continued his music career through partnerships with Rhino Records and Barnes & Barnes, punctuated by troubled interpersonal relationships and a growing cult of fans.

This documentary, by Josh Rubin and Jeremy Lubin, covers all this rich history, following the 60-year-old Fischer through his transient daily life as he tells stories, makes up songs, spins his paranoid theories and occasionally acts out. There are also revealing interviews with Wild Man acquaintances and fans, such as Mark Mothersbaugh, Billy Mumy and Robert Haimer of Barnes & Barnes, Dr. Demento, Weird Al Yankovic, Irwin Chusid and Gail Zappa.

Listening to Fischer’s music can be a difficult experience. Even those songs with professional backing sound raw, primal and disturbing. But they can also be fun and catchy; once you get one in your head, you’ll be humming it for days.

And therein lies the trouble, not just in considering Fischer, but also other mentally ill songwriters like Daniel Johnston, Roky Erickson or Wesley Willis. How much are fans and collaborators supporting the efforts of talented (although troubled) musicians, or how much are they simply exploiting the talents of people who can’t otherwise look out for themselves? And how much of their musical talent is merely a manifestation of untreated mental illness?

These are questions with no easy answers, and ones which Rubin and Lubin mostly choose to ignore. “Derailroaded” is a fascinating look at the inner workings of a talented, but very difficult man. But any insights into the larger questions will have to wait for another time.

Best Bit:
Wild Man’s two performances of the title song. When he sings it on the beach at the beginning of the film, it comes off as just a fun, catchy little earworm. But when we see him do it again in concert near the end, it becomes something more, a desperate cry of pain from someone who has no tools to articulate it properly.

Side Note:
Because of his split with Zappa (allegedly prompted by Fischer throwing a glass bottle at then-infant Moon Unit), his debut album has not been re-released on any format since 1968. If you want to hear it, you have to either spend big bucks on eBay, or hunt it down on a torrent site.

Companion Viewing:
“The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (2005) and “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (2005).

Official site.
eFilmCritic interview.
The Wild Man discography.

Take a Look:
The strange four-way conspiracy between Wild Man, Weird Al, Dr. Demento and Barnes & Barnes, that exists only in Larry’s mind:

“Merry Go Round,” Fischer’s biggest hit:

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