I Am Thor is one of those fascinating documentaries that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time. The jovial star of the show, aging rocker Jon Mikl Thor, is a gentle soul who bears all (literally) for director Ryan Wise. On the other hand, it’s always sad when someone doesn’t realize they’ve crashed into their talent ceiling. But who are we to judge? Thor’s dogged determination is an inspiration to anyone with a dream, and he’s one of the most engaging personalities we’ve seen all year.
There is a moment late in I Am Thor when Jon Mikl Thor admits he will someday have to “stop coming back and say, ‘Hey, I’m here!’” That this realization arrives 10 years into said comeback is just one small part of what makes Thor so endearing. Ryan Wise’s loving tribute starts at the beginning, introducing us to a kid who couldn’t choose between being a rock star or a bodybuilder, so he just did both. That most rock stars more closely resemble skeletons than fitness instructors didn’t deter Thor from attempting the impossible. But what do you expect from a kid who believed so passionately in his Superman-like invincibility that he implored classmates to throw bricks at his head?
Thor had one thing going for him; the ‘70s. His novelty felt natural at a time when glam rockers like Alice Cooper and KISS were selling out arenas. Thor signed a contract, recorded a competent record, and was poised to embark upon a massive world tour when… he was kidnapped?!? It seems like an almost inconceivable occurrence until the rest of the movie happens. Thor’s life story becomes less like a story and more like a sadistic proof for Murphy’s law. “There’s this force trying to stop me,” he laments. Either fate is being extremely unfair to Thor, or it has a pretty keen musical ear.
The first half of I Am Thor is dipped in a delicious cheese sauce of archival footage and lively talking-head interviews. Former bandmates and current heavy metal aficionados gush over a man they insist was on the precipice of international stardom. It’s an idea that so permeated Thor’s brain he’s been unable to shake loose the cobwebs. The intriguing hidden layer of Wise’s film is trying to decipher if Thor has any actual musical talent. While a final judgement on that matter remains murky, there’s no denying he’s the ultimate showman, and he loves each and every one of his fans.
We get all of Thor’s trademark stage bits, from using his impressive lung power to explode a hot-water bottle, to bending steel bars in his mouth. “What does it take to get to the next level?” an increasingly-desperate Thor asks himself in the ‘80s. He tries more elaborate stage shows, European tours (where he remains popular to this day), and acting in B-horror movies. Finally, after suffering a nervous breakdown in the streets of New York City, Thor settles down with a former nudie magazine editor (Rusty Hamilton from “Cheri Magazine”) and retires from public life in 1987.
The second half of the film focuses on Thor’s ill-advised comeback to the music scene in 1998. While this portion is infused with more pathos, it feels lethargic when compared to the film’s breakneck first half. We spend lots of time standing around in hotels, airports, and concert halls with Thor and his ever-changing roster of bandmates. It suffers from the similarity to a million other music documentaries, most of which have tighter editing and better production values. Mostly, we just hang out with Thor and take in all the backstage minutiae.
Still, it’s hard to quibble with Wise’s decision because Thor is so damn entertaining! Whether it’s getting trapped inside an airport security checkpoint or forgetting the proper way to assemble his overly-elaborate stage costume, the hapless Thor is just begging to be loved. Even when his bandmates abandon him in the middle of a tour, he refuses to be angry at them. This man will never buckle beneath the weight of hardship or common sense.
It’s in those moments when you see his love and passion for the fans. Yes, even at 60 years of age, with impossible visions of global conquest still dancing in his head, what keeps him going is the rush of performing. Whether it’s an outdoor festival with thousands of fans, or a hotel conference room with six paying customers, Thor puts everything into his show because that’s how it’s supposed to be done. Simply put, he’s the consummate professional.
There are dozens of lessons to be learned in I Am Thor, both good and bad. It’s painful to see the platitudes about hard work and determination so thoroughly debunked. Yet, it’s inspiring to know that even if these traits don’t guarantee success, they still make you a better person; a person who is loved and respected by the people in their life. Thor may never sell out an arena, but he will always find an appreciative crowd waiting for him after the show. And isn’t that the true measure of success?