Photo by Didi Zill, courtesy of the Munich International Film Festival

Born to Be Wild: The Story of Steppenwolf Review – A Worthy Addition to the Rock Doc Canon

2024 Munich Film Festival

8 mins read

Born to Be Wild: The Story of Steppenwolf
(Canada/Germany, 97 min.)
Dir. Oliver Schwehm


It’s fitting that Oliver Schwehm’s sympathetic portrait of the band Steppenwolf is a Canadian/German co-production, for in so many ways, this reflects the cross-cultural character of the central band members themselves. Best known for bringing the “heavy metal thunder” with the iconic track that gives Born to Be Wild its title, the journey from post-war Germany to the thriving folk/rock scene of Toronto, and then to fame and fortune in California, provides a fascinating case study of this beloved band.

The film focusses on lead singer John Kay (born Joachim Fritz Krauledat) and Nick St. Nicholas (born Klaus Karl Kassbaum), two German ex-pats whose families emigrated to the sleepy streets of Toronto after the ravages of the Second World War left much of their native home in ruins. Both musicians had fathers in the military – Kay’s was killed a month before his birth during the Russian campaign, and Nicholas’ was an esteemed Naval leader who is pictured in the doc standing beside Hitler.

In Canada, they found new lives and new identities, changing their names and their outlooks as they entered the early years of the rock revolution. Kay’s need to wear darkened glasses mirrors the ocular challenges of Roy Orbison, reshaping a condition that resulted in complete colour blindness and sensitivity to light to a then-hyper-cool look. His sunglasses-at-night aesthetic remains the stuff of rock legends.

While the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young were strumming their folk songs in the Yorkville coffee shops, the Hawks were backing Ronnie Hawkins in the smattering of rock clubs that littered Yonge Street a few blocks east. It was here where Kay and Nicholas snuck in while underage, witnessing Robbie Robertson and his crew ripping up the joints and creating a unique scene.

The two would eventually be part of the Sparrows, an act that mixed these folk, blues, and rock elements into a moderately successful group. With interviews from likes of mega-producer Bob Ezrin filling in the details, this Canadian connection sparked to bring these individuals together and shape their careers.

This cultural collision provides much of the film’s engaging elements. (While one of the producers attending this year’s Munich Film Festival said that some of the “German stuff” would be truncated in cuts playing in North America, I actually found that material to be the most appealing.) The film tells how this was an intensely fruitful time for musicians being incubated in Toronto before going on to international success in the U.S.A., but entire swaths of the early stories of these two are entirely absent. For example, film omits for simplicity’s sake Kay’s early days in Buffalo, his initial failed move to L.A., and his decision to come to Toronto.

The same can be said for Nicholas’ own remarkable musical career, which is tied to the Epics who would soon merge into Mynah Birds (a band eventually signed by Motown with Rick James as a singer and Neil Young on guitar) or how Nicholas replaced Bruce Palmer (who previously played with both the Mynah Birds and Buffalo Springfield) on bass as the Sparrows went on to some success.

Of course, for a general documentary, the articulation of every iteration of the band’s member composition could easily bog things down, especially as the focus is meant to be on the band that evolved from these early efforts. However, this thriving scene truly fuelled much of what was to come, and even the more modest elements provided in the documentary are welcome. Eventually the Sparrows morphed into Steppenwolf, taking on a harder edge that leaned into the cerebral lyrics of folk with the cutting guitar sounds of heavier blues. This hard rock aesthetic was soon to explode, of course, and the genre that in part got its name from the lyric in “Born to Be Wild” can certainly be traced to the bombastic recordings of this band at their height.

The inclusion of “Born to be Wild” in the Easy Rider soundtrack, moreover, catapulted the band to huge success. A half century on, it’s still a ubiquitous song on radio around the world. Yet beyond their initial hit, there were numerous tracks, from the psychedelic drive of “Magic Carpet Ride” to the sombre complexity of “Monster” with its plaintive “America, where are you now.” They lyric feels as timely today as it was when it was released during Vietnam War protests.

Schwehm’s film provides a linear illustration of the band’s rise, from its incorporation into biker culture through to the various conflicts and personnel changes that inevitably befall just about every group. After decades of animosity, Nicholas and Kay share the spotlight once again for this project, and their journey to the past is appropriately reflective. Past conflicts are articulated, but there are no scores to be settled here. Each musician provides his own perspective on what drove them apart with welcome honesty.

As is usual, the eventual descent into a shattering of the band into constituent parts is given shorter shrift than the highs of the early successes are, but it’s good that the smattering of Nicholas’ Wolf-themed bands are given some attention, along with Kay’s later concert performances. Steppenwolf itself only lasted a few years and a couple albums, indicative of so many other bands from that era. However, it is a credit to how much these songs were incorporated into the mythos of the late-60s’ that the effect of these records resonates to this day.

This mix of talking-head interviews, home videos and concert and promotional clips hardly reworks the conventional theme of these type of films, but this is such a far-reaching story that ties elements from geopolitics to biker subcultures to the burgeoning genres of which these band members were at the forefront. Those factors make the story of Steppenwolf a touchstone for navigating narratives of this era in ways far beyond the output of a single pop group. It’s this element that sets both Steppenwolf and Schwehm’s film apart, and makes Born to Be Wild a worthy, at times remarkable, addition to the rock doc canon.


Born to Be Wild: The Story of Steppenwolf premiered at the Munich International Film Festival.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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