A man who looks to be in his early-to-mid 30s is standing on a stage in LA, reading aloud from a journal to a packed audience. His name is Laurent, and for a great many years as an adolescent he was a heavy metal star in the vein of walking 80s hairpieces like Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil or Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott. Laurent’s band, Live Evil, travelled the world on tour, performing their many hits to packed-out arenas, and every night their young lead singer’s prowess with women would make Mick Jagger look like a Benedictine monk by way of comparison. The sole problem with all of this is it’s all part of a deftly-constructed teenage fantasy; Live Evil only ever existed in Laurent’s head and on the pages of his diary.
Being of a similar age, and having been through a “metal phase” of my own in the 1980s, I can relate to Laurent somewhat. Back then the idea of being some kind of rock god, as opposed to a skinny kid with a bowlhead haircut struggling through chemistry lessons, was one that I occasionally thought of (at least when I wasn’t daydreaming about forming a brilliant attacking forward line with John Aldridge and Pat Nevin, that is). Laurent is no different to millions of other adults who, as kids, were either encouraged to follow their dreams or simply let their imaginations run wild while school days whizzed by. The only difference is he wrote all of it down…every last minute detail.
If you’ve ever kept a diary, or if you ever look back on your formative years with a mixture of both fondness and utter embarrassment, then you will find yourself nodding along frequently while watching Mike Mayer’s new documentary Mortified Nation. The film showcases the Mortified theatre show, which has been running since 2002 in a variety of American cities (and even has a chapter in Sweden). During these shows, participants like Laurent read aloud on stage from their old diaries, suffering a very public and often amusing humiliation as they reel off once-intimate details of teenage crushes, awkward moments with family members, struggles with sexual identities and, indeed, the cringeworthy and misogynistic heavy metal lyrics they once churned out with alarming ease and regularity. And it’s not just diaries, either: old letters, lyrics, poems, cassettes, artwork…it’s all fit for airing and shaming.
The shows look like great fun, but the individual readings are also often very moving and poignant, as in the case of one Portland resident who candidly reveals details of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her family while growing up. In the interviews with the show’s organisers and participants, as well as those with psychologists and other professionals, the importance of these old diary entries is highlighted; they may just be words or pictures in an old journal, but they are powerful enough to unlock memories and stir powerful emotions in the diary owner that dips back into them. It’s fascinating to watch several powerful and emotionally-charged readings during the course of the film, and easy to understand the sense of relief and the adrenaline rush some of the performers experience off stage afterwards.
Founded originally by executive producer David Nadelberg, and with co-executive producer Neil Katcher joining shortly thereafter, the Mortified live shows have become a great success, and some even encompass live music (indeed Laurent is granted his childhood wish, and despite never actually having put a band together in his youth, he is joined onstage by three musicians so that Live Evil can finally become a reality; just don’t give up the day job, Laurent).
The LA version of Mortified even has a house band, named the Mortified After School Orchestra. Members play the kind of instruments kids are often forced to learn against their will, but cover the kinds of songs they were never allowed to at school, like tracks by Led Zeppelin or Smashing Pumpkins. Brilliantly, one current member of the Mortified After School Orchestra is Lol Tolhurst, ex-drummer/keyboardist and founder member of goth rockers The Cure. The irony that some of the performers at Mortified were probably writing their angst-ridden diary entries while listening to his band in the 1980s is not lost on Tolhurst.
Mortified participants go through a kind of “audition” process with the live show’s producers called “shoebox sessions”, though it should be added that this looks to be informal and very friendly. Having to go through a screening beforehand with the producers presumably puts a lot of people off in the first place, but it enables the team behind Mortified to highlight the material that a group of strangers would most likely find interesting. The performers shown in the film look to be a mix of introverts and extroverts; some clearly struggle to overcome their stage fright and nerves, whereas others look completely at home behind the mic and in front of the audience. A great many exhibit the timing of delivery you often see in stand-up comics, working up to the release of those most embarrassing lines and moments as if they were joke punchlines, expertly pausing while the audience digests the full horror of teenage drama in utter hysterics.
Director Mayer approached Nadelberg after seeing a Mortified show in Los Angeles, and asked if he could make a film about the experience. Four years later, he was granted permission, and in a recent article explained exactly why he wanted to record the shows and speak to the participants: “When I saw the stage show, I was absolutely blown away. It was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. I’d never felt as connected to strangers so quickly from any stage show, movie, anything – I just fell in love with it. By reliving our childhood together, we come to understand that we weren’t the ones going through what we thought we were going through alone. We weren’t crazy for having the fears and hopes and fantasies that we had growing up, we were human and I think there’s a real comfort and catharsis in seeing that you’re not the only one.”
The passion displayed by all involved in this theatre project, be they producers, musicians or those who share their old private journals, makes for an amusing, well-constructed and very watchable documentary. In this day and age, where so many thoughts and life events are shared via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook et al, it’s nice to be reminded of a time when all that embarrassing, cringeworthy stuff was kept private, and written with the knowledge that strangers would never, ever find out about it. Of course plenty of teenagers today will be busily scribbling down their innermost thoughts in a diary; hopefully a lot of them will get to see Mortified Nation and realise that time gives you a new, healthy perspective on what may at present currently seem like the biggest crises, the most hurtful rejections, the worst personal disasters and all those awkward, frustrated crushes.
Directed by: Mike Mayer
Running Time: 84 Minutes