Three years after his death, many moviegoers will best remember Rockets Redglare as the parking-lot killer in Talk Radio, pumping lead into Eric Bogosian while pronouncing, "You're dead, fuckah!" Or they'll recall his loopy character turns in Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law and Mystery Train appearances excerpted in Rockets Redglare!, the biographical documentary that bears his name.
But to director Luis Fernandez de la Reguera, those clips are only window dressing to an off-screen life that was performance art all its own. When Redglare wasn't guesting in indie flicks or hosting comedy nights at New York clubs, he was applying his peculiar charisma to the equally important activities of borrowing money, pulling off robberies, scoring dope and fielding the attentions of adoring women. Any filmmaker who can't assemble an interesting documentary from such lowlife multitasking deserves to have his camera taken away.
The movie begins with footage of its star in a hospital bed, commenting on how strange it is to be introducing his own life story. Strangeness, though, was a lifelong companion to Redglare (born Michael Morra), who died at age 52 of kidney failure, liver failure, cirrhosis and hepatitis C. Neither the movie nor Redglare make any bones about the copious intake of drugs and alcohol that rode him to his early grave. His fate hangs over the film like a shroud, shading but not obscuring the grim levity of his on-camera recollections. In their own interviews, Redglare's friends and coworkers including Steve Buscemi, Julian Schnabel and Jim Jarmusch manage to convey a contagious affection for someone who could be a whirling dervish of self-destruction.
All of the interviews seem to have been conducted before Redglare's passing, which invests them with extra poignancy. Still, the film's greatest asset is Redglare's own skill as a raconteur. With an unbridled honesty that just skirts the maudlin, he makes us understand what drives a man to schedule his sleep around his drinking habits while letting his weight balloon to more than 600 pounds. It helps if you were born the smack-addicted child of a junkie mother, watched your gangster father and uncle murder a man before your eyes and went on to be sexually abused at an early age by your landlady. At least she paid him for the privilege.
Addicts always exaggerate, but if only half of Redglare's accounts are factual, his was an odyssey like few others. De la Reguera's camera picks up that journey near its end, recording the actor's degeneration into a bedridden, rasping mess who can barely make his anecdotes understood. The cheap-looking video won't win any Kodak awards, yet it's an appropriate compliment to the squalor of Redglare's biography. What's important is that that squalor is rarely spiritual: Even the bleakest of Redglare's stories tend to climax with a belly laugh instead of a sigh. Doomed but not a nihilist, he seems to have genuinely relished many of the key aspects of being alive. If that sounds like a cliché, it won't after you see the movie. And if it seems like no great accomplishment, take a closer look at some of the more miserable "straight" folks you know.