Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer

Derailroaded. Inside the Mind of Larry Wild Man FischerDerailroaded. Inside the Mind of Larry Wild Man Fischer

OK, I guess Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer is interesting on some level, but is this really not a put-on? Had I not read descriptions and reviews of this documentary ahead of time, I’d probably think it was at least 50-50 that this was a mockumentary.

But evidently it’s not. Larry Fischer is a real person who briefly achieved some degree of cult prominence for his “singing.”

Fischer is a paranoid schizophrenic who has spent much of his life shouting the lyrics to weirdo songs (of his own composition) on the streets for spare change. The songs are semi-coherent rants, or just comically literal descriptions of things in his life.

People—Frank Zappa for one—in certain circles in Los Angeles have long been aware of him, and periodically have given him opportunities to perform on stage, cut albums, etc. But that’s never gone anywhere, so he’s always quickly dropped back into obscurity, moving around amongst various skid row hotels or crashing with relatives, and shouting for money on the streets.

He’s clearly nuts, but apparently not in a way that makes him a danger to himself or others (though the people in his life don’t hide the fact that he can certainly be highly annoying), as he has avoided institutionalization for all but brief periods in his youth. According to the movie, he only recently relented and agreed to take drugs for his mental illnesses, preferring until then to take the good with the bad and be the kind of manic “wild man” that he enjoyed being, and that at least some other people found enjoyable as well.

Maybe he’s this really talented guy and I just can’t see it, but I don’t know what to compare his musical style to except parodies. The one that comes to mind is the Wayne’s World guys clanging a guitar and shouting “Wayne’s World! Wayne’s World! Party time! Excellent!” Imagine whole albums of that.

I sense maybe what people like is he’s doing with sincerity what they can only do with irony, because they’re not crazy. Although he was championed by the likes of Weird Al Yankovic and Dr. Demento, I don’t think his material is comic in that sense. It’s not like there’s clever, intentionally funny stuff going on with the lyrics. I think it’s more like what you might hear from the B52s or Devo or someone like that, except again, those artists would be doing it with irony.

So maybe people are drawn in by the raw emotion, by the mundane literalness of his rants. It feels real in a strange way.

I did enjoy seeing such oddball figures as Barnes and Barnes (of the great novelty record Fish Heads) in the movie. They’ve played a big role in his career, such as it is.

And actually I looked it up later, and Fish Heads is credited to Larry Fischer, with the Barnes and Barnes version being a later cover. Maybe this is an instance of what I wrote about above, that Fischer just rants in stream of consciousness fashion about whatever oddball notion pops into his head, not trying to be funny or anything, whereas if other people do it—like Barnes and Barnes—it’s recognized as ironic and intentionally funny. There is more of a purity to what he’s doing.

But are people admiring that sincerity, or laughing at him? Probably some of each. I mostly thought the people interviewed—like Bill Mumy of Barnes and Barnes—genuinely think he has a strange talent, and like him, at least as much as they can given how annoying he is to be with. (His brother remarks that he really has no friends. It’s a lot easier to regard a crazy person as interesting or funny or even a genius of sorts from a distance, than to intertwine your life with his.) But surely a fair number of “fans” just find him entertaining as a freak.

The filmmakers, for that matter, skirt awfully close to the line of exploitation and ridicule. To me the interviewer’s questions, in a tone of voice like someone talking to a small child, routinely had the subtext, “Say something crazy and funny Larry!”

I’m not sure what to think about that. I don’t know that you can fault them for talking to him like that, as his relatives and other people in his life are shown talking to him in that same patronizing tone. Should they talk to him instead like he’s a rational adult? The problem is he’s not.

So it’s a little creepy that they’re kind of egging him on to provide entertaining material for the movie, but I don’t know what the better alternative is.

It’s not like he’s completely crazy, completely unaware; there’s no doubt some intention to be “out there” to get attention and entertain people. So if you’re too sensitive about letting people laugh at him, I’m not sure you’re doing him any favors.

For the first half or so of Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, I thought it was kind of a dumb topic for a documentary, that if this crazy guy wasn’t a parody, he might just as well be. But I’ll admit, the film—and Fischer—grew on me a bit after that. I’m not going to go out and buy his records, but I started to get a little bit more of a sense of why he might be kind of an interesting, entertaining guy after all.

Assuming it’s not all a put-on….


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