Behind the Bat
To open in New York for a two-week run, then one-day screenings at some thirty selected “fan-friendly” movie houses nationwide prior to Cablevision Rave HD April 4, Meat Loaf: In Search of Paradise is not typical genre documentary. Director and writer of television documentaries as well as President/Executive Producer of Atlas Media Corp. and “just a casual fan,” director/coproducer Bruce David Klein approached this project with his subject’s philosophy: “I work off the top of my head, off the seat of my pants, I don’t think.”
Although he wonders if or how much that subject has changed on the cusp of sixty and whether his public will welcome “deviation from the icon of 1977,” what results is free flowing, chronologically and geographically structured, the singer and entourage aware of, at times speaking to the camera-observer’s presence, then closing dressing room doors on or dismissing it: “that’s not because he’s here,” guitarist John Miceli concludes his pep talk of love.
Quickly title-identified, quickly confused and forgotten, band members too often speed-bump the flow with unnecessary observations that come out on-screen, anyway. For the story is clear in the rehearsals and revisions, the frantic travel with mishaps, and the Canadian leg of the eighteen-month tour a year ago leading to a London, Ontario, concert-DVD, all to coincide with the release of the Bat Out of Hell III album. Much takes place offstage, the questioning before and after performance, so there are few seconds wasted on the de rigueur ecstasy of audiences older than rockumentary adolescents.
Patronized by Rolling Stone as schlock-rocker magnum theater veering towards Freddy Mercury’s, the numbers shown boil down to a few, really, those once considered bombastic teen melodrama but liable to strike the uninitiated as orchestrated elevator-and-lobby stuff, familiar from half-hearings.
Minimal past footage is spent on the background and beginnings of the golden goose he became in outselling, for example, Sgt. Pepper head to head, or on his four dozen films and television appearances, or the pop-star personal and professional peaks and valleys or the surprising successful family life. Instead, from the low-key behind shots of his two-hundred-fifty pounds ascending side stage steps or of his relatively unhistrionic singing, comes the sense of double life, of a transformation taking place as the insecure perfectionist -- “angster,” says buddy Dennis Quaid, joining in for a duet in Winnipeg-- moves into spotlights and later back out into darkness, gasping for air like a beached whale on a dressing room floor.
Promoter Allen Kovac surmises that Meat Loaf continues for the same reasons that propelled Sinatra, being a winner who does not give up. The cost is tremendous, for unlike Elton John and other “real schmoozers,” the man is retiring, looks like a suburban neighbor, no longer parties or curses, and takes all sorts of vitamins for severe back and sinus troubles yet drives himself to exhaustion for his work which, he laughs, “people think is 100% glamour all the time.”
Dismissing the critics as often wrong, he remains thin-skinned to reviews, and the conflict arises at the press’ lukewarm-to-hostile response to “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “performed 8,900 times since 1977.” With its “cameo” by Phil Rizzuto, and done with Ellen Foley on the first Bat LP, the single is a showpiece, with Dallas Cowboy cheerleader-clad Aspen Miller taking the come-on-girl rôle given Karla DeVito on the promo tour thirty years before. Twenty-eight but looking ten years younger, petite Miller locks lips with the grey-about-the-ears, slightly tonsured star, and music writers lambast the geezer-teenager groping as “creepy” and obscene, failing to get it that it, too, is theater, make-believe, “staged Beauty and the Beast.”
Bristling and at the same time personally hurt, Meat -- as all call him -- spends extra offstage time and energy on the number, finally presented as a 1970s Hair survival done up with tie-dyes, fringes, bell-bottoms and wigs (one for him, too). Soon, printed closing titles announce the cancellation of some of the next scheduled stops for health reasons, presumably accumulated physical and emotional strain.
“I tried. . . . I tried,” whispers the star. What changed the overweight, shortsighted, retiring schoolboy into an international legend repeating, but always sweating to better his work, is not, cannot be, explained. The staid never-sarcastic New York Times once referred to him as “Mr. Loaf”; the slip is ironic, for there is nothing idle about this driven man, who wrestles mightily with whatever demons out of hell or paradise.
(Released by Universal Studios Home Video; not rated by MPAA.)