In the mid-sixties, Roky Erickson was the frontman of the American rock band The 13th Floor Elevators, which looked about to become massively popular as they pushed back the parameters of their style thanks to their embrace of psychedelic drugs, and letting those experiences inform their music. Alas, come the early twenty-first century and Erickson's lifestyle has turned seriously restricted, as years of substance abuse and very poor choices from those who were meant to be looking after him, including the authorities who tried to make an example of his drug-taking, have left him a shell of a man, whose ageing mother insists she knows how to take care of Roky and has left him barely functioning, seeing nobody...
The story of the acid casualty rock star is a familiar one, so much so that it has become a cliché; you could describe Roky as the American Syd Barrett had there not been other claimants to that unfortunate title, from Skip Spence to Brian Wilson, probably the most famous of the victims. Luckily for Wilson, he made a fortune while he was relatively functional, but the tales of the likes of Erickson were more typical: one or two hits to make their mark in their formative career, then diving into LSD and strong cannabis or some other hard drugs to fuel their creativity, after that paying the price for the rest of their lives as they struggled to get by once the damage had been done.
There was another, similar musician documentary released in 2005 that also garnered a cult following, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which detailed the issues of a different schizophrenic singer with similarly tragic results. Like that film there was a sense that we were intruding on an existence that was exposing a poor soul at his lowest ebb with prurient or voyeuristic intent, though the director of You're Gonna Miss Me (also the title of Erickson's most famous song) insisted he wanted to commemorate his subject and ensure he was not forgotten. After all, it's bad enough to go through mental illness after such a promising beginning, but worse to have nothing to show for it.
Therefore director Keven McAlester was careful to gather as much footage of the man from his earlier years as he could, some of it extremely obscure, though seeing him presented by US TV legend Dick Clark was both valuable and amusing (Clark and his microphone make a beeline for the electric jug player, alas). Other times we see Erickson interviewed or onstage, and even in his more lucid moments the decline is evident: this is a man who had a legal certificate drawn up to state that he was no longer a member of the human race, but an alien. That could be eccentrically entertaining in isolation, but the more we learn about what has happened to him, the less charming his story is, from his mother dominating his life while not being totally healthy herself (she insists on treating her son alone, with Christianity and yoga).
Much of this film was based in the then-present, so at the beginning we witness the legal case brought by Roky's brothers and son to get him away from the clutches of his mother and onto some kind of medication and psychiatric treatment, which one of the brothers believes should be of a New Age variety. It has to be said, the rest of the clan are in a pretty poor way themselves, a pattern of depression that may be something to do with the taciturn father (we see him briefly, and he is a menacing presence no matter his advanced years). But the siblings have had help, and are a lot more capable than Roky, so the running time unfolds with the viewer willing this cheery yet obviously fragile man to get assistance and live up to his pioneering reputation that celebrity talking heads pop up to endorse. Happily, You're Gonna Miss Me did the trick, and after a string of broken relationships, drugs hell and enforced psychiatric imprisonment that did more harm than good, Roky was able to spend his last years feeling better and returning to the stage. Worth knowing once you get to the end of a troubling, almost eerie documentary.