What does a creative person do when he hits bottom? For Tomi Petteri Putaansuu (aka Mr. Lordi) the answer is double down on self-belief and bash on regardless.
Most American audiences likely aren’t familiar with the name Lordi, but for a time they were some of the most famous musicians in Finland. The heavy metal band – part Gwar, part Kiss – dresses in monster costumes and make-up and are never seen out of costume.
Though the band launched in 1992, it rocketed to success in 2006 after becoming the only Finnish band to ever win the wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest. They returned to their native Finland heroes, playing for thousands in a packed square under a hail of pyrotechnics. They had reached heights unthinkable for Mr. Lordi, who grew up in a small Finnish town obsessed with mythological worlds and intrigued by the fantasies like “E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial.”
But, as with most pop stars, the time on top did not last long. A few years later, the band and Mr. Lordi found themselves in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and the reception of the public had grown as cold as a long Finnish night.
Finnish filmmaker Annti Haase’s fascinating and humorous documentary “Monsterman,” the winner of the jury award for best documentary at the Austin Film Festival, tracks Mr. Lordi as he attempts to recapture the band’s magic and place in pop culture. Mr. Lordi has no other choice, really. As his sweet and supportive mother explains, the fantastical boy who never grew up is not suited for a 9-to-5 life. He grew up with his head adrift in his otherworldly creations, drawing comics and eventually finding an outlet for his creativity in music.
While we get no complete backstory of the monsters Mr. Lordi created, it seems he formed the stage act alter-ego as a response to bullying and alienation as a child. When he put on his mask, he became impenetrable and powerful. He also became indefatigable. Despite internal band drama, the closure of his themed restaurant, and a thin performance schedule that included thankless private gigs for Russian real estate agents, Mr. Lordi never gives up hope. And he never let shame shake him.
He struggled with writer’s block and some self-doubt, but, inspired in part by the death of a bandmate, the Peter Pan of heavy metal continued to manifest his dream. The documentary doesn’t lean on traditional talking-head interviews, because Mr. Lordi won’t be filmed without his costume. Instead we watch from a distance or over his shoulder as he takes meetings with doubtful record executives, squeezes himself into platform boots like a little kid playing dress-up and hawks his band to anyone who will listen.
The opening lyric to Lordi’s biggest hit, “Monsterman” may best capture the heroic spirit of the misunderstood and hopeless romantic of Lordi: “Would you love a monsterman/Could you understand/Beauty of the beast/I would do it all for you/Would you do it all/Do it all for me.”
“Monsterman” has its humorous moments — watching “monsters” undertake mundane tasks is never not funny — but Haase doesn’t pity, humiliate or condescend to his subjects. He simply puts his camera on Lordi and follows the improbable journey from would-be laughing stock to could-be hero. Lordi comes across as a creative and determined man supported by his loved one and his own delusion, but sometimes it takes delusion to make that long trip from the bottom to the top.