Outsider musician Larry "Wild Man" Fischer caught his big break in the late '60s, when Frank Zappa discovered him singing original songs for 10 cents a pop on Sunset Boulevard, where he'd become something of an underground sensation. Fischer always brags about creating new songs on the spot, and his work has a quality that could charitably be described as "spontaneous," a little like the infantile ditties a 10-year-old makes up, only preternaturally catchy. Though he'll occasionally strum or beat on his guitar for good measure, Fischer belts out his songs in a flat, atonal yelp that couldn't be further from the polished sheen of radio pop, which probably accounts for why he had Zappa's ear for a brief, promising moment in an otherwise miserable life. A manic-depressive with paranoid schizophrenia—a toxic combination, to be sure—Fischer presented an enormous challenge even to his most well-meaning champions, but he fully expected Zappa to turn him into a rock star. When his Zappa-produced double album An Evening With Wild Man Fischer sold only 12,000 copies, those dreams were over and he continued on a steady downward spiral.
Josh Rubin's affectionate documentary Derailroaded finds Fischer scraping bottom, living in squalor with his terminally ill aunt and floating loony conspiracy theories about the mystery men out to get him. A more patient, fly-on-the-wall approach might have evoked Fischer's day-to-day existence more effectively, but Rubin leans heavily on talking heads to explicate the past and present, perhaps because Fischer's erratic behavior only welcomed so much camera time. Admirers like Mark Mothersbaugh, Solomon Burke, Dr. Demento, and "Weird Al" Yankovic are interviewed mostly so they can insist that Fischer is brilliant, even where the performance footage suggests the contrary, and having a Rutgers psychology professor comment on Fischer's general symptoms is downright amateurish. In a documentary about a living subject, conclusions are better drawn through rigorous observation, not explained away in some tidy pop-psychological portraiture. But Rubin's unmistakable passion for Fischer, long after all but family members have turned away from him, nonetheless adds a persistently touching edge to this sad footnote in rock history.