The California Chicken Café, a favorite meeting place of young Hollywood movers, seems a curious birthplace for a documentary about rock stardom, manic depression and schizophrenia. But its where aspiring film producer Jeremy Lubin, a native of Farmington Hills, was sitting in 2001 when a disheveled man with dirty skin and threadbare clothing approached and asked, Do you know who I am? Lubin didnt.
Im Wild Man Fischer, the man said, his voice fluctuating between childish exasperation and ragged despair. I was discovered by Frank Zappa, and I was the first artist on Rhino Records. I made four albums, toured with Solomon Burke and did a duet with Rosemary Clooney.
Lubin listened to the barrage of names with suspicion. Could a man who looked as if he was homeless really have collaborated with the star of White Christmas? But a subsequent Google search verified Fischers rant. It also provided a summation of his mental state. Institutionalized at 16 for threatening his mother with a knife, Larry Wild Man Fischer was diagnosed as a manic-depressive paranoid schizophrenic.
Intrigued by Fischer as a potential subject for a documentary film, Lubin and his then-roommate Josh Rubin a Huntington Woods native who studied film at New York Universitys Tisch School of the Arts tracked down An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, the debut album Frank Zappa produced in 1969 after discovering the vagabond songwriter on the streets of Los Angeles. They were floored. Not only did the cover art suggest a deliciously bizarre and irreverent sense of humor (a photograph of a grinning Fischer holding a knife to a cardboard cutout of his mother), but the music was even more entrancing: a concoction of glee and gloom delivered in a frazzled, knee-jerk warble. We put it on the turntable, Lubin says, and we just ... we had never heard anything like it.
Over the next three years, Lubin and Rubin would go on to create Derailroaded, an 86-minute documentary about the intersection of genius and lunacy as exemplified by Fischer, the godfather of outsider music. Lubin produced the film, and he and Rubin share editing credits; both are 28. Derailroaded has been shown at more than 50 film festivals and art-house cinemas, and is in the process of being released domestically and internationally on DVD.
The film features extensive commentary by Frank and Gail Zappa, Weird Al Yankovic, Devos Mark Mothersbaugh, Solomon Burke, Dr. Demento and Lost in Space child star Billy Mumy. Theres also some archival footage from Fischers early days, scenes from a recent L.A. club performance and bits of cartoon and puppetry that echo Fischers capricious style.
The film does an effective job of transposing two very different vantage points. The first is how the world perceives Fischers art: While some consider him reckless, others believe hes a genius. The second is the way Fischer perceives the world (in one scene he cowers beneath dirty bed sheets, terrified that Rubin and Lubin are in cahoots to kill him).
Its not like hes Jimi Hendix, Rubin says, explaining the fractured response to Fischers work. But his mind, through his illness, has allowed him to have this portal to what it is to create art and what it is to be a true original. Hes tapped into that. Hes not a novelty act. He is not being funny or trying to be funny. Hes expressing himself. He just doesnt have the filters that you or I have.
While some scenes are undeniably funny, the film is a sensitive and haunting portrait of a man who cant cope with the rigors of show business, yet repeatedly throws himself into its trenches. The manifold layers of Fischers music and actions reveal a man who is candid, exuberant, skittish and scared.
In a phone interview, Fischer exudes the same nervous energy he shows on film, but his short, clipped sentences carry a downtrodden weight. Fischer, who turns 61 this month, has yet to see the film, which provides him with yet another source of paranoia.
Im a little bit nervous to see what kind of film they made of me, Fischer says. I dont know what to expect. They could have painted me in a bad light. They could do whatever they want. Its scary. Everything is scary about show business.
The fact that Derailroaded is a music documentary will only serve to endear it to the filmmakers hometown. Detroits always been on the edge as far as music goes, Lubin says. If any audience really gets it, just as a movie about an original kind of music that most people are not familiar with, I think Detroit will.
9:15 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5; and 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Woodward Ave., Detroit; 248-644-3456. Part of the Detroit Docs Film Festival.Ronit Feldman is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]