There’s a commonly held belief that successful people are all assholes. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I judge the guy sitting next to me in traffic in his fancy BMW: man, that guy must be jerk to have so much money. And while the world certainly has no short supply of Gordon Gecko-wannabes climbing the ladder of success by stabbing people in the back, it is possible to be a tremendous success without being a terrible person. Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is a documentary about a guy who made a lot of people rich and famous—but he did by being nice.
Now, I’m sure you have two questions right now:
1. What is a “Supermensch”?
2. Who the hell is Shep Gordon?
Mensch is a Yiddish word that means “a person of integrity and honor.” A Supermensch is someone with an almost super-human level of goodness. Shep Gordon is a talent manager who rose to fame after moving to California in the late 1960’s and essentially helped break Alice Cooper into the popular consciousness. He also managed to create the celebrity chef, overthrow the unfair practice of not paying black music acts for live appearances/concerts, help start one of the first independent film companies (the first to be headed by a woman), and make friends with the Dalai Lama.
The early days of Gordon’s career are probably the most fascinating parts of the documentary. He moves to California to be a parole officer in 1968. After promptly quitting (he was a “longhair” and didn’t fit in) he almost immediately meets Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. It was Hendrix who suggests that Gordon become a manager (for no reason other than the fact that Shep’s Jewish). He becomes a drug dealer to the some of the 1960’s most famous musical acts before opting to leave the danger behind and manage Alice Cooper. The philosophy Gordon employed to make Alice Cooper a household name is both genius and a bit nuts. Gordon cultivated negative press for the band. Why would he do that? Well, Gordon knew that if he could make parents hate Alice Cooper the kids listening to rock music would love Alice Cooper. From rigging a mobile billboard to “breakdown” in the middle of London’s busiest intersection at rush hour, to tossing a live chicken on stage (RIP that chicken)—Gordon learned to become a master manipulator. Soon parents were up in arms over Alice Cooper, and Gordon was laughing all the way to the bank.
Turns out the story behind the rise of Alice Cooper is full of really funny stories. I think the best early Alice Cooper story was the time a promoter wanted a female folk act and booked Alice Cooper. Ever the savvy businessman, Gordon went along with the mistake! I think I’d pay almost anything to see the look on those peaceful hippie faces when the freakish Alice Cooper took the stage at that concert. Once the Alice Cooper band took off, Gordon had to fight Frank Zappa (of all people) to get their first album out. All of this Alice Cooper stuff is really interesting, and I kinda wish the documentary was just about those early days.
Once Alice Cooper gains infamy and riches, Gordon tries his hand at managing other acts. Supermensch delves into Gordon’s relationship with R&B legend Teddy Pendergrass and how he helped the world’s best chefs become overnight millionaires by hawking spices and Tupperware. Gordon’s had an impressive run and it’s interesting to learn that the guy who helped invent Alice Cooper also “invented” Emeril Lagasse. He uses the same nice guy tactics to make everyone he touches into success.
What’s so menschy about Gordon? His business philosophy seems to be that everyone should walk away from the table a winner. He does whatever it takes to promote his artists, but always in an honorable way (unless you are a chicken). A good example is the motel rooms used by the fledgling Alice Cooper band. In the early days, the band was trying to relocate from LA to Detroit and on the way the band played concerts. Because they were unknowns, the band had no money for motels, so Gordon paid with bad checks. As soon as the band took off and made money, Gordon went back and re-paid all the motels they’d screwed over.
I was surprised to learn that Supermensch was directed by Mike Myers. Yes, that Mike Myers. The SNL alumni fell on hard times after his film The Love Guru tanked at the box office and in a deep depression, the comedian ended up spending two months at Gordon’s house in Hawaii. So while I think Shep Gordon is probably a genuinely nice guy…I do think the film veers a bit too far into hero worship. There’s some dark stuff in the film, but it’s largely glossed over. That’s a bit disappointing, but makes sense when you learn that the man behind the camera probably owes his sanity (maybe even his life) to the film’s subject.
Overall, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is a fascinating glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of the entertainment industry and a great way to kill an hour and thirty minutes. Supermensch is currently streaming on Netflix and is available on iTunes.