“What does it take? A balancing act on top of the Empire State Building? Jumping off of the Empire State Building? Jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge? I don’t know. I don’t know what it takes. I mean — does it take that much, to get to the next level? I guess that’s what I’m asking. Either I go to the next level, or I hang it up, right?”
So muses Jon Mikl Thor midway through the singularly inspirational music documentary, I Am Thor. It’s characteristic of how big Thor still dares to dream, decades into his fruitless career. But staring into the camera in his tattered cape and breastplate, visibly exhausted in some drab dressing room, it’s also one of the few moments in the film where he doubts his path in life.
Which is surprising, considering that his life has been that of a B-list theatrical stuntman, a costumed would-be heavy metal god. Originally a bodybuilder from Vancouver, Thor was a musical peer of KISS who aspired to the rock and roll pantheon in the ’70s, but seemed to battle fate at every turn and never managed to make his mark. The cumulative feeling of his career is that of a relentless gong show, leaving you wondering why he ever forged on.
I Am Thor tells the story of that career with great gusto, racing like lightning through Thor’s incredible early years in less than a half hour. Without giving too much away, the tale involves male stripping, a kidnapping, nutty producers, marriage to an adult magazine star, and a series of low-budget horror movies. It all crashes headlong into his nervous breakdown in 1987. A meandering middle section charts his ten-year retirement in the ’90s, then his heartbreakingly terrible, amateurish comeback attempts and further exploits (like ministering a wedding in Alberta).
From this surface description, the documentary could be just another chronicle of sordid showbiz excess. What makes it unusual and fascinating is Thor’s personality, a constant light amid his misfortunes. Everyone who knows Thor calls him the nicest guy in the world. From what the documentary shows, I might have to agree. He brings dauntless enthusiasm and earnestness to his work, without the least bit of irony toward the absurdity of everything that’s happened to him. As a performer he’s as cartoonish as KISS, but he’s a distinctly Canadian cartoon: a homemade, rough-around-the-edges showman, exuding supernatural work ethic and niceness.
It’s unfortunate that the second half of the documentary turns abruptly to his band’s recent tour of Scandinavian festivals. The unexpected success they see there is touching, and offers some of the feel-good payoff that made the similar Searching for Sugar Man so effective, but it isn’t really signposted that the film will go in that direction. As a result, it feels lopsided, slowly dwindling away after the onslaught of high-octane misadventures that marked those first years.
Since I Am Thor hit theatres a year ago, its star has been generating a little more thunder, and the movie is currently touring with him across North America. Ultimately, it’s a small but memorable testament to everyday heroism. Thor’s stage persona may be as a legendary hero, but the man behind those displays of strength and daring is even more heroic: an inexhaustible optimist of mythic proportions.
I Am Thor will be screening tomorrow night at the V-Lounge, 3366 Douglas St., at 9 p.m. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Thor, and a performance by Thor & Zon: Son of Thor. More info is available at this Facebook page.