Folk Legend

One Bad Cat Delivers A Compelling Portrait Of The Rev. Albert Wagner

Many years ago, when eminent documentarian Les Blank visited Cleveland with one of his short features about an "outsider artist," an eccentric self-taught painter-sculptor-costumer-composer-architect (The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists, highly recommended; catch it if you can), I tried to interest the famed filmmaker in East Cleveland's own Rev. Albert Wagner as a celluloid subject. Blank patiently explained to this sub-D-list regional entertainment reporter that he frequently gets such suggestions in his travels - tips about offbeat musicians, artists and visionaries. Alas, without some producer ponying up the money for the film shoot, Blank said, no deal.

Wagner died in September 2006, after ascending to a position of eminence and marketability among American folk artists - as well as earning a place in books such as Weird Ohio for his home/gallery/studio/church on Lakefront and St. Clair avenues, festooned with murals, sculpture and installations. But someone did put up the money to make a movie before he passed: cable-channel documentarian Thomas G. Miller. His One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story casts an inquiring lens on Wagner in his final years.

Practically every Clevelander who can name an art gallery knows the Wagner legend, a life story the artist himself elevated to mythic status in his sometimes autobiographical paintings: that at age 50, after a successful career as a mover and a debauched lifestyle that included three wives (at least) and 20 children (ditto), the formidable Wagner experienced a road-to-Damascus-style epiphany, converted to a form of Pentecostalism and started to make works of art. He sold the moving business and established his own church/museum, the People Love People House of God. His extended family and neighbors became the principle congregation.

There are the non-PC aspects in Wagner's own sermons and allegorical imagery. He preached that African-American society was as much sinner as sinned against, and he exhorted followers and passersby to cleave to old-time religion and not the damnation of hip-hop. This made Wagner about as popular as Bill Cosby or Alan Keyes among those who want victimization as their only cross to bear.

The camera follows Wagner into his final months (omitting the highly timely detail that one of his sons got swept up in a Homeland Security witch-hunt of terror suspects), and ultimately the viewers are left to make up their own minds about the Rev. Wagner's legacy and salvation. A lot of artists harbor God complexes, but his was a special case.

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