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In the vast world of rock biographies, a filmmaker has to ask her or himself, “How do I keep my documentary from looking like something from Vh1’s Behind the Music?” The answer, aspiring young Maysles, is to add Meat Loaf to your recipe.

Director Bruce David Klein admitted to me during our interview that he had no idea what he would be filming, no particular objective other than recording the preparations and first weeks of the rock icon’s latest tour. The odyssey he captures on film as the then 59-year old legend struggles with health issues, voice troubles, a press crew with no sense of humour and himself as his own harshest critic, shows the b-side of the glamourous rock fantasy that is rarely seen – possibly for good reason. The first scenes of Meat Loaf: in Search of Paradise feature the big Texan falling to the floor backstage after a performance and it’s absolutely chilling. Is he all right? Why is nobody calling a doctor? Apparently, this is a frequent ritual of Mr. Loaf’s and such a common sight that roadies step over him whilst complimenting him on the show. After one such episode, Meat, again upright looks at the camera and says, “How’s my hair” like he wasn’t prone on the floor a second ago. After this display I knew this “rockumentary” was going to be something different.

The artist formerly known as Marvin Lee Aday, who became the most popular comestible in modern music, shot to the heights of rock glory with the 1977 album (- ask your parents, kids) Bat Out of Hell. His larger-than-life persona and physique, operatic voice, bravura performances and embrace of the camp, made him a household word. Paradise by the Dashboard Light, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad, and You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth were all tremendous hits. Subsequent releases saw him reclimb the charts in 1994 with the hit, I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That). The documentary takes place as Meat has just released his Bat Out of Hell 3 CD and is preparing for a tour of North America and Europe.

Klein is faced with challenges right off the bat (- N.P.I.) when he discovers that Our Man Meat is not as forthcoming with access as one who agreed to film a fly on the wall documentary might be, and indeed there are a lot of doors slammed in Klein’s face. Part of the expectation in the film is whether or not Meat will open up to the film crew, and bit by bit he lets them inside the cocoon. We see the initial rehearsal of the tour and get to watch Meat put his band through the wringer changing up songs and arrangements days before the first show. He sheepishly lets us watch him flap his arms about while receiving voice training and is so confident in his Meathood that he bestows loving smooches on his two poodles with a lot less embarrassment than he showed in the voice training.

Meat and his band proceed to the first night of the tour in Vancouver and all goes wrong, flights are terribly delayed, baggage hasn’t arrived, and by that end of that show and nearly all the filmed concerts, we see that no one expects more from Meat Loaf than the man himself. No performance is ever good enough and we watch him stalk backstage kicking rubbish bins, furious at what he is sure was a bad show. The frustration at what he perceives as his failure to deliver is astounding, not only because the performances the documentary crew captures seem to be making the audience perfectly happy, but when you consider that at 59 years-old, this man has spent nearly all his adult life onstage singing for people and hit the heights of fame multiple times in his career, his aggravations are touching and mystifying. In all honesty, he could phone in a tour and still fill venues, resting on his rock legend laurels. Klein shows us Meat’s other tour rituals, the stretching machine he needs before he goes on, the pharmacy of pills, drinks and powders that allow him to give his all during a show, and the precarious maintenance of  that Wagnerian powerhouse of a voice (- Which I experienced at only a fraction of its strength after he spontaneous burst into song during our interview my ears have only recently stopped flapping). While I took away that Meat with all his griping and blaming had a touch of the hypochondriac and drama king about him, he clearly endures some actual suffering. My only regret about the film is that after all the agita we see Meat go through; he’s never asked why he does it. In my talk with Klein, he intimated that he felt that Meat needed that love and approval from the audience, he’d had it for so long, how could he do without it? It may that simple, but it would have been a good thing to address in the confines of the film.

A big highlight of the film is watching the singer become his 1977 self after a flurry of bad press. During the concert’s first song, the iconic Paradise by the Dashboard Light, Meat and an extremely petite backup singer (- Aspen Miller, in a barely-there cheerleader outfit), comically reenact the make out scene from the original 1977 video. When critics assail this segment of the concert while giving the rest of the show high marks, despite his early assertion that he does not read reviews, Meat does not take it well. He reconfigures the entire sequence, making his entire band hunt for 1970’s drag in the thrift shops of Canada (- the sax player winds up looking like a pimp version of Dr. Teeth from the Muppets). Meat himself decides to shove the humour down the throats of the clueless journos and tricks himself out in the tuxedo, ruffled shirt and flowing red scarf so identifiable with his persona from the late 70’s. What makes the dress-up more than just some campy fun is watching Meat fitting a custom wig to match his long hair from the period and trying to style it in the way he did 30 years ago. The camera lingers on his face as he gets it right and it’s a little poignant watching this nearly 60-year old looking back at his younger self; you can’t tell if he’s pleased with what he sees or if there’s the slightest tinge of wistful melancholy in his eyes. Somehow in the form of his younger self, the criticism of the comically sexy scene stops and Meat can get on with finding (- and creating) other tour worries.

In light of the initial access issues Klein faced with his subject it is more remarkable how very raw Meat Loaf: in Search of Paradise is (- again, N.P.I). While it never feels egregious or intentionally heart-tugging, seeing the indomitable performer lying prostrate with physical and emotional exhaustion is not a pretty sight. It is in these moments and Meat Loaf’s own willingness to allow them to be filmed that in turn allows the documentary to be the standout that it is. Klein’s brilliance is in being present at the right moment and letting the camera capture this Texas tornado of a man literally giving his all for his audience.

Now I’m off to Pollstar to find out when Meat Loaf is touring again near the Temple.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

March 13th, 2008

 

 

 

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