Judge Adam Arseneau is breaking the law, breaking the law.
"If you say 'Welcome to my nightmare,' you don't just say it. You do it. Give them the nightmare."—Alice Cooper
A fascinating foray into the underground subculture of heavy metal, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey explores the early roots of metal music, the explosion into popular culture, and its gradual recline into a subculture of black leather, metal shoulder pads, devil horns, greasy hair, and poorly drawn pentagrams.
Does it rock? Hell, yes, it rocks.
Facts of the Case
When a teenage headbanger grows up into an anthropologist, the only real career choice for him to make is to craft a documentary into the social roots of heavy metal. Such is the fate of Sam Dunn, a 30-year old, long-haired, gangly dude from British Columbia who decides to combine his love of hardcore thrashing with his educational prowess. Camera in tow, Dunn sets off to answer some questions about the music he loves so. How did this fascinating subculture of music, mannerisms, and anti-establishment attitudes emerge, and what keeps it going throughout the decades? Why is heavy metal so beloved by its loyal metalhead constituents, but so reviled by the masses at large?
Dunn hits the road to get his answers. His stops include the U.K., birthplace of heavy metal; Germany, to attend the Wacken Open Air heavy metal festival (largest of its kind in the world); Norway, to investigate the satanic church-burning Norwegian Black Metal heads, and back to Canada and the United States. Along the way, he interviews music producers, record label founders and presidents, acclaimed historians, DJs, journalists, authors, musicologists, sociologists, Satanists, Spin magazine writers, and even world-famous "super groupie" Pamela Des Barres.
Also, he interviews some metalheads. Metal contains interviews from some of the founding fathers of heavy metal, like Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath), Dee Snyder (Twisted Sister), Slayer, Alice Cooper, Vince Neil (Motley Crue), Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Ronnie James Dio, Lemmy Kilmister (Motörhead), Geddy Lee (Rush) and John Kay (Steppenwolf). In addition, Dunn gets interviews and performances from the newer generation of thrashers, like Cannibal Corpse, Slipknot, Rob Zombie, Lamb of God, Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine), Arch Enemy, Enslaved, Emperor, Korn, Voivod, Kittie, Mayhem, Girlschool, Gorgoroth, Doro Pesch, and Hades Almighty.
Metal is the story behind heavy metal from the mouths of the men and woman (well, mostly men) who live, breathe, and eat the bones of newborn babies every day. Throw up your devil horns, kids. Things are going to get loud.
"I never questioned my sexuality at any point, and I was up there in
Henry Rollins once remarked that you can trace the path of a man's life by examining his T-shirt pile, because a man will never throw out a T-shirt, ever. Like some archaeological relic of the past, men hang onto these faded garments beyond all rationality, regardless of how absurdly small a shirt has become, how many holes it has acquired, or how faded the logo has become. We keep them buried in the back corner of a closet, perhaps in the hope of one day recapturing some past glory.
This is also how a man knows when laundry day is upon him. When he hits the Iron Maiden T-shirt, it is time to do a wash.
Admit it. If I went diving through your T-shirt stack, I wound unearth some horrifying discoveries. What musical skeletons do you have hidden in your wardrobe? Perhaps a cut at the midriff Great White T-shirt or something with the word Ratt on it? After all, it wasn't so long ago that the heavy metal of the 1980s was a global phenomenon and nobody was safe from its effects—or the terrible, terrible fashion.
Metal takes a light, friendly, and genuinely curious approach to the subject of heavy metal, which makes the film exceptionally accessible even for those who despise the subject matter and/or the music. Of course, as a self-proclaimed metalhead himself, Dunn has created an unabashedly one-sided documentary in favor of his musical passion. Don't expect to see much commentary in favor of Tipper Gore in Metal, unless it was in favor of giving a punch to her throat. This is a film made by a metal fan to try and answer (if only for his own self-serving academic interests) why the masses at large reject the subculture so.
Dunn traces the origins of the music to the earliest purveyors of heavy riffs, bands like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple before branching out into modern incarnations of the music. As an anthropologist, Dunn understands the importance of tracing roots, and Metal features an amazingly convoluted (yet obviously painstakingly researched and accurate) flow chart of heavy metal's musical metamorphosis over the decades, branching out into genres, sub-genres, and regional variations, and citing specific examples of each. As the film progresses into new metal genres, the flow chart is revisited; its references cited and examples given. It is an entirely logical, completely accessible, and utterly brilliant way to structure a documentary film, doubly so for anyone interested in musical history.
Dunn finds that the true sociological origins in heavy metal culture are rooted in small-town America, grown from the jaded and disillusioned youths looking for a sense of belonging. The heavy metal subculture gives an element of family to individuals who strive to be unique, to stand out, and to rebel against the system. Metal fans identify themselves by their anti-establishment tendencies, which form in essence a new sub-establishment of outsiders, loners, and rebels, brought together by common goals and musical tastes. There are very few casual heavy metal fans. Indeed, heavy metal is more a lifestyle than a musical genre.
From here, the film ventures into the various incarnations of heavy metal music over the years, like the explosion of glam metal and hair rock during the 1980s that helped usher in heavy metal as the most popular music on the planet—at least, for a year or two. And oh, so much more. Metal covers, in various levels of detail, early metal, shock rock, progressive metal, glam metal, early punk, power metal, pop metal, the new wave of British heavy metal, original hardcore, the first wave of black metal, stoner metal, thrash metal, death metal, metalcore, grindcore, industrial metal, grunge, hard alternative, goth metal, Swedish death metal, Norwegian black metal, nu metal, and the new wave of American metal—each a completely separate entity with its own characteristics, cultural variations, and clearly defined musical distinctions. If you thought Metal was just kidding around, think again. This film takes heavy metal seriously.
Let's not forget my personal favorite heavy metal genre: the Norwegian Black Metal. Wait, did I say "favorite"? I meant "sweet zombie Jesus scary." You think American heavy metal got a bad rep during the Tipper Gore decency hearings? You ain't heard nothing until you've seen how extreme the Norwegians like their heavy metal. Concentrating on a rash of church burnings, Metal offers some amazingly horrifying interviews with some of Norway's toughest, scariest, and most satanic metal bands, who put the campy theatrics of American metal to absolute shame. Shift uncomfortably in your seat as musicians cite Satan as their primary influence and squirm as a recently released metal musician who spent a number of years in prison for burning down a church stares icily into the camera and casually proclaims how Christianity must be destroyed and that he'd do it all again. Creeeeepy…
One thing I admire Metal for examining is the involvement of women—or rather, the complete absence of women—from heavy metal music, especially vis-à-vis the ambiguous gender identity that personified the glam metal from the 1980s. Heavy metal is a subculture almost reserved exclusively for sweaty leather-clad dudes, often with misogynistic lyrics and themes that leave little room for women to have any role in the culture beyond being a groupie. Metal pays special attention to women and bands that are actively breaking this stereotype, like Girlschool and Arch Enemy. Factor in this exclusion of women in with the sexually expressive, yet often androgynous energy of the hair bands in the 1980s, and the role of sexuality and gender in heavy metal is a…complex affair. As one observer in the film puts it, he knew many guys back on Sunset Strip in the eighties that wanted to have sex with the chicks from Poison. Whoops.
Oh yeah, one more thing. The interview with Necrobutcher from Mayhem is, without a doubt, the greatest recorded interviewer with a professional musician ever recorded. Hands down. I'd transcribe it here, but the FCC recently ruled that dropping the F-bomb carries a steep financial penalty.
The transfer quality is decent overall, but varies depending on the footage. Like all documentaries, a hodge-podge of material under various lighting conditions, film stock, etc., have been combined to create Metal, with some footage looking better than others. The majority of the recorded interviews are clear and clean, with decent black levels and saturated colors, but other shots are washed out, grainy, and muted. Still, for a moderately budgeted documentary, the visual quality is more than serviceable.
For a documentary about heavy metal music, one would expect an outlandish audio track full of massive energy, but Metal offers a respectable, balanced presentation with average bass and clear dialogue. Both a 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Surround track are similar in tone and volume, but, as always, the 5.1 sounds more nuanced and detailed. The 2.0 track in comparison is higher in the treble range and focused to the center channel. It sounds good, but I kind of wanted loud…really loud.
With a running time of about 90 minutes, the film's brevity is its only genuine downside. In one of the extra features, Dunn laments that he couldn't make Metal eight hours long, despite having enough material for it. Making a film is all in the editing, deciding what goes and what stays, and, unfortunately for us, a lot had to go. There is little fat in Metal left to be trimmed, leaving a fairly lean, tight documentary, but fortunately for fans, the two-disc DVD presentation serves up the leftovers. Crammed to the brim with metal goodness, the discs overflow with deleted scenes, interviews, and supplements.
On Disc One, filmmakers Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen contribute a relaxed, laid-back commentary track, gushing over interviewing their metal heroes, discussing production details, and laughing about how 60-year-old Lemmy drank the filmmakers under the table something terrible. On Disc Two, for the dangerously curious, a 25-minute follow-up documentary on Norwegian Black Metal expands one of the film's more controversial subjects. It would have been nice to see more of this material in the film itself, since it is so incredibly messed up and fascinating, but its separate inclusion in a stand-alone documentary was probably the correct choice. Norwegian Black Metal, after all, is merely one facet of a complicated history of heavy metal. A small featurette named "Lemmy at The Rainbow" features some extended interview footage with Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead, which is totally awesome, because Lemmy personifies heavy metal more than any other individual you will ever meet. He looks like a leather glove, is over 60 years old, roadied for Jimmy Hendrix, and has been drinking non-stop since 1955. Rock and roll, Lemmy. Rock and roll.
Seventeen extended interviews with Alice Cooper, Anvil, Arch Enemy, Bruce Dickinson, Cannibal Corpse, Dee Snyder, Dio, Geddy Lee, Lamb of God, Napalm Death, Pantera, Rob Zombie, Tom Morello, and Voivod round out the material, along with some travel outtakes. But by far, the most interesting supplementary material of all comes in the form of a DVD interactive version of the history of heavy metal flow chart that Dunn structures the film around. Browse until your heart's content and unravel the myriad pyramid structure if you can, for each separate entry on the heavy metal chart comes with cited musical examples and lengthy descriptions of their origins and influences. This is a fantastic and thoughtful feature to include and I give the filmmakers praise for crafting it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As stated before, this is a documentary that loves heavy metal made by heavy metal lovers. It takes into account the social, gender, religious, and controversial aspects of the music and culture and tries to present a well-rounded perspective, but there is nothing particularly well-rounded about a film that is obviously so enthralled with the material. In this case, it is a good kind of bias, but it is a bias all the same.
Is this a problem? Not for me. I'm not the biggest metal fan per se, but in high school, I did my share in the circle pit as a political hardcore vegan kid, traveling in the back of smelly vans to Syracuse to get my ass handed to me by a 300-pound bald kid with straight-edge tattoos. Sure, some of these bands give me a headache today, but I am in awe at the performance, the spectacle, and the sheer technical musical talent of heavy metal purveyors. You won't find me listening to Cradle of Filth anytime soon, but I can get behind this film wholeheartedly.
But not everyone is as loose as I am. More uptight people—especially people with traditional religious and family values—might not see the same appeal from Metal as the general public, despite the documentary's intention to engage the material from an open and forthright perspective. I mean, guys like Alice Cooper and Bruce Dickinson, for all their theatrics are utterly harmless; but some of the Norwegian Black Metal dudes are bat-@#$% insane. They scare the crap out of me.
Oh. Hell. yes. Any documentary that seamlessly blends fascinating material, fresh perspectives, incredible interviews, and archival material into a subject not often explored at great depth is an absolutely winning combination, let alone one with such awesome music. Top it off with a second disc loaded with supplementary materials and Metal will kick your ass and make you cry out for your mother.
Put simply, this movie rocks. If there's a better heavy metal documentary out there, I don't want to see it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• The Definitive Metal History Family Tree
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