Doug McCorkle is a nondescript 60-year old American, the sort of man you’d never take notice of on the street. He’s held a fulfilling but unexciting 9-to-5 corporate office career as an accountant and a long-term marriage of love and devotion to his wife, Regina. The pair stuck together through thick and thin. Although they’d hoped to be parents, the opportunity just never came. It’s OK. Because they stayed dual-income with no kids, Doug is ready to retire early and he has big plans for the next phase in his life. For the past few years, he’s moonlighted as a local DJ. Now, at 60, he’s ready to make some music of his own.
I’m an Electric Lampshade is billed as a “docu-narrative,” blending reality and fiction. Doug, the musician, is real. The story told, however, is an extrapolation of his anxiety and his artistic ambitions. It’s hard to tell what parts are real and which parts are embellished for effect. It doesn’t really matter, though. The result is a visually and sonically arresting, and thematically moving, story about finding a new identity long after you’d settled for a self you didn’t love.
Director John Clayton Doyle reportedly started working with Doug on a music video before they expanded the project into a feature, a bold move that has paid off. The story is initially told with documentary-style narrative segments. Doug’s “office life” feels like it’s meant to mimic the single-camera sitcom setup popularized in the mid-2000s. It’s a mundane existence filled with moderately satisfying work. Doug’s retirement party affords him an opportunity to declare his intentions of becoming a pop star, which falls on supportive but questioning ears. These sequences are executed well and ground the film’s sense of empathetic character work. It believes in Doug’s journey from the get-go; it believes in anyone’s journey if they’re willing to make the leap.
As the story progresses, Doyle lets the straightforward storytelling fade away into an interlinked series of musical numbers, culminating in a massive EDM concert where Doug is able to show the world what he’s created. It works incredibly well — beautifully shot and expertly edited, with a keen sense of what the increasing surreality means for Doug’s character. It’s never gorgeous for the sake of being pretty to look at; Electric Lampshade keeps the story in focus even as it pushes the boundaries of its initial form.
While on his journey, Doug faces questions about his own gender presentation. He trains with a troupe of performers in the Philippines for a time, many of whom are drag queens or LGBTQ+ performers. Early on, one of them, Fandango (Isra-Jeron Ysmael) confronts Doug about being a tourist in their community (and country), and Doug never denies it. He’s a man looking to learn, listen and figure out where he fits in a world he never knew he wanted. For a film about a 60-year-old, upper-middle-class white man trying to find himself, it has a strong emphasis on listening to others and being open to new things. This isn’t a film about a man going out to find younger women to sleep with or a new culture to appropriate into further success for himself. It’s a shame such a positive focus is notable, but here we are. Doug loves his wife, and he also loves his friends and fellow performers.
Electric Lampshade isn’t entirely clear as to what is fact or fiction about Doug’s journey. It seems impossible to find any of his music online, via YouTube, Spotify or most major sources — not even the titular song. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter. The key truth to the story is that nobody is a nobody and everyone can be a somebody if they’re open-minded and willing to listen to their inner selves. The ability to find passion doesn’t dissipate with age; sometimes all a person needs is to be brave enough to find a new one and to lift up others who are struggling. Whether this is a documentary about a man who succeeded — or whether this documentary existing is the success to his story — it’s nonetheless a beautifully filmed work with a positive message. That’s a good truth.