DVDanger: I Am Thor
Director Ryan Wise and the adventures of a metal strongman
By Richard Whittaker,
12:30PM, Sat. Jan. 23, 2016
It's a cinematic tale as old as the music documentary itself. Fallen musician comes back from the brink, struggles to get recognized, gets a new resurgence. But as Ryan Wise followed epic metaller Jon Mikl Thor for I Am Thor, it became clear that the struggle was the comeback.
In an alternative universe, Kiss and Man-o-War opened for Thor. His theatrical metal mixed heavy riffs with onstage fight sequences (after all, Thor had a career in B-movies like Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare), and feats of strength like bending iron bars and blowing up hot water bottles (not so tough for a former bodybuilder and Mr. U.S.A.). It seemed like Thor could do anything: He even handled his own merch, and parlayed that into a lucrative second career dealing in hockey merchandise for the now-defunct but still beloved Stanley Cup-winning Vancouver Millionaires.
But he never quite reached the pinnacle, for a series of often crazy reasons. Tales of kidnapping and literally insane promoters litter his career. When Wise first started covering Thor in 2001, he was four years into a comeback that looked like a mad pipe dream: to reignite the career that he never quite had in the first place.
As seems to be the way with Thor's erratic career, Wise met the barbarian rock legend via the most unlikely of circumstances. He and his producer/stepbrother Alan Higbee were making short films in college. "One of the guys we worked with as an actor was working in a pizza restaurant, and he said, 'You should talk to this guy called Thor. He's an actor, and he used to be in films back in the day.'" They just thought they would have a chat about the film industry, but Thor mentioned that he had a band. "He said, 'I'm playing a show in Seattle next week, you guys should come.'"
Higbee was more aware of Thor, the leather-wearing muscleman of Eighties metal, than Wise, but neither could really see this reserved, friendly, middle-aged businessman commanding much of a presence onstage. The Seattle gig set them straight. "We go to the show, and all these masks are set up, and the band is dressed up, and then Thor comes out and just puts on this crazy awesome show with tons of energy. He's way into it, smashing bricks on his chest, bending steel bars, water bottles, fighting Loki, and we're just blown away. This is amazing. What is this guy?"
After the show, Thor told them he was launching his West Coast comeback tour, and invited them to come with him. Wise said, "All right, we just have to start filming this."
That 2001 tour is the stuff of Spinal Tap nightmares, with every conceivable problem, up to and including having to recruit a completely new band after his original group got detained at the border. Wise said, "I was like, wow, this could be the whole movie right here." Then they got to know him even better, and so began a 14-year odyssey, following the highs and lows of a beloved underdog. Wise said, "He keeps trying, and he inspired me to keep going. It was hard to do it with no money, but watching him never give up helped me not give up on the project."
During a decade of filming, there were plenty of highs and lows that could easily have marked the narrative end of the film. However, in 2011 Thor announced his first European tour in nearly three decades: This became Wise's chance to close the circle on the story, taking it back to the place of his subject's greatest triumph. It even gave Thor a chance to find the adoration that had evaded him back in 1984. "They really should have blown up right then," Wise said. "He had a big fan base, and a lot of people were coming to his shows, and a lot of people knew about him. Going back there for the first time, and going to Scandinavia, well, those guys love him."
The tour became the long-awaited end of the story, but those extra years had allowed the filmmaker to become closer to a very private man, who remained as unlikely a metal god as the first time they met via a pizza joint. Wise said, "He doesn't seem like Thor at all when he's not onstage." Moreover, unlike many fallen idols, Thor never seems delusional about his chances – just really, really optimistic. "He's always working and always moving, and he's always positive about it. He always goes for it."
There were hard times too, not least because the years of high-energy performance and life on the road inevitably catch up. Wise said, "Backstage, I didn't know if he's going to get up. He's exhausted, and hurting really bad, and limping, and can't take his armor off. But he loves his fans."
That love is not without cost. As Thor himself says during the film, "Rock & roll is a painful profession. That's why so many people quit. Well, I'm past the point of quitting." As the years have caught up with him, some of the more physical aspects of spectacle have been shelved (no more smashing bricks on his chest), but a Thor show is still as over-the-top as his epic rock demands. Wise puts that down to his inherent urge to entertain. "He's tried to retire, but I don't think he can stay off the stage. There's times when he took breaks and then he got depressed. He's so comfortable on stage, and he gives the audience his all, every time."
I Am Thor (MPI/Dark Sky) is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.