Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me to Be? is a zippy documentary about, well, Michael Des Barres. Everyone knows Michael Des Barres. Right? He’s that guy from that show you like so much. That guy who was in that movie you liked so much. A quick look at his IMDB page says it all: 112 credits in all kinds of TV shows and movies.
He had a role in the teacher-saves-students drama, To Sir, with Love. Des Barres was known to yell “MacGyverrrrr!” as his character, Murdoc, plummeted over a cliff or was yet again bested by the titular secret agent in the TV show MacGyver. I’m sure you remember that time he played the satanic cult leader, Malcolm Graves, who influenced his son to give rise to the ghoulies in Ghoulies. No? What about the time he was in CSI, NCIS, Seinfeld or The New WKRP in Cincinnati? What about the time he was Eddie, the potential love interest of Lynn Tanner in the “Promises, Promises” episode of ALF? It was a great one.
Oh yeah, he also had a music career. At one point he used his androgynous look and bawdy demeanor to front bands like Silverhead, which was signed to Deep Purple’s label, Purple Records, and the band Detective, which was signed to Jimmy Page’s label, Swan Song.
He had a solo album or two. He was part of another group that was bubbling just under the surface called Chequered Past. There was that time he fronted the rock supergroup Power Station, for its Live Aid appearance after Robert Palmer left the band. Even Des Barres’ most notable contribution to the music pop culture is somewhat behind the scenes in its own way.
No doubt you’ve heard the new wave classic, “My Obsession” by Animotion. To this day, the early ’80s pop culture staple is still used in movies like Ingrid Goes West, Stuber and Hot Tub Time Machine to name a few. The song, originally written and performed by Holly Knight and Des Barres, headlined the soundtrack to A Night in Heaven, an erotic disco drama about a torrid affair between Faye, a speech class teacher, and Rick, who was a speech class student by day/crotch-thrusting male dancer by night.
Honestly, one can’t be blamed if they’re having a hard time placing the name Michael Des Barres. He’s always existed just on the periphery of main-attraction status. A good chunk of Who Do You Want Me to Be? is a tribute to having an unvanquishable drive and a flair for reinvention. We’ve seen this rock documentary before: the youthful days, the ascent, the years filled in a haze of pills and blow, the affairs, the ruined marriages, the fall and the re-ascent.
It’s well-worn territory of talking heads, pithy edits and archival footage made more interesting because the savvy Des Barres is an engaging storyteller (particularly of his more hedonistic days) and his many bittersweet brushes with fame are relatable.
One small section of the film recalls Des Barres’ more party-hardy days with the likes of Don Johnson and Ed Begley Jr. interspersed with nights playing Trivial Pursuit with former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.
At a fleeting 79 minutes, the film flies by. No wheels are reinvented by any means but at the same time it sidesteps the whole rise-fall-rise thing since, at first glance, it’s more about an inspiringly persistent fellow who always seemed to miss fame by that much and became quietly content with that. Come to think of it, like its subject, that’s kind of a reinvention itself.
Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me to Be? premieres on demand July 10.