Right around the same time the heavy-metal band Anvil was about to rediscovered, and Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul started searching for Sugar Man, the 47-year-old Canadian actor Rob Stewart embarked on his own odyssey of belated, documentary-boosted pop-culture reclamation.
According to Stewart, who co-directs, co-produces and is the subject of Slaughter Nick for President, the Brampton, Ont.-based, largely unemployed actor was living in his parents’ suburban basement when he heard the news: Tropical Heat (a.k.a. Sweating Bullets), the Canadian-made Magnum P.I. via Baywatch meets Miami Vice detective show he’d appeared in back in the early nineties, was an object of high cult enthusiasm in Serbia. Not only that, but Serbia’s top dissident punk band, Atheist Rap, had scored its biggest and most socially galvanizing hit with a catchy little high-velocity number called Slaughteru Nietzsche – commonly translated as Nick Slaughter, Serbia Hails You. The song was not only popular throughout the country, it had attained anthemic status as the soundtrack to the anti-Milosevic movement of the 1990s.
Slaughter Nick for President tracks Stewart’s journey from his parents’ basement to Serbia in 2008 where – like the band in Anvil: The True Story of Anvil and Searching for Sugar Man’s folk-rocking Rodriguez before him – he is confronted by the fact of a celebrity status he never knew he had. From his arrival at the airport, where he is greeted by one of the former leaders of the student uprising, ushered through a flash-bulbing mob and into a limo, Stewart is delivered a universe away from that Brampton basement. Throughout Serbia, he’s so popular people call his name on the streets, approach him to sign Tropical Heat DVD collections, compel him to appear in daft TV commercials, and generally tell him how this mondo-cheesy late-night surf detective show helped them dream of freedom and keep up the good fight. (Best bit of Serbian Slaughtermania: In that country, a hairy chest like Stewart’s is called a “Nick Slaughter.”)
It’s over the course of these discussions, as we learn how this ostensibly innocuous show was broadcast on the heavily censored state airwaves to cause a insurrectionary sensation, that Nick Slaughter for President acquires its heart and heft. As the music of Rodriguez did for the South African anti-apartheid movement, the antics of the pony-tailed beach P.I. Nick Slaughter came to represent a kind of freedom and hope to young Serbians opting for democracy, the point where one of the country’s more ubiquitous anti-authoritarian graffiti tags gave this movie its title: “Slaughter Nick for President.” Naturally, our boy from Brampton is flabbergasted.
But he’s also happy. Exceedingly so. Indeed, from the movie’s beginning, Stewart’s voiceover keeps telling us that this was one of the greatest experiences of his life and, while undoubtedly true, it also prevents the movie from taking on either the final emotional K.O. of Anvil: The Story of Anvil or the slow-reveal dead-or-alive mystery that drives Searching for Sugar Man. But what it does share with both is a sense of wonder at the sheer stubborn weirdness of the human drive for galvanizing symbols of liberation and release from tyranny, and how one culture’s trash can become another’s rallying cry for action. In this case, Tropical Heat caused a splash, sustaining a wave of revolt behind a charge of “Surf’s up!”