Sunday, September 28, 2008

A review of Metal: A Headbanger's Journey

As a heavy metal fan I found it a real pleasure to watch Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. Sam Dunn's 2005 documentary is a fun, insightful look at my favorite genre of music and actually manages to do it justice. Dunn is not only a smart filmmaker but he's also a fan, and it shows in the final product.

Unlike the flawed Fargo Rock City, which focused exclusively on hair metal (e.g., Poison, Warrant, Motley Crue, etc.) and gave very short-shrift to real heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Slayer, and Black Sabbath, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey includes all sub-genres of heavy metal. Dunn spends a limited time on the overrated hair/glam period and far more on power, thrash, death, and the new wave of British heavy metal.

I actually found that the most compelling segment was the piece on Norweigan black metal. These bands actually (and terrifyingly) practice what they preach. Black metal bands were behind a string of church burnings in the early 1990s, and the lead singer of one band, Burzum, went so far as to murder a fellow band member. Dunn interviews two members of black metal bands and both coldly face the camera and state unhesitatingly that they support more church burnings and the downfall of Christianity.

Watching Dunn at work made me exceedingly jealous. He somehow managed to score interviews with the likes of Bruce Dickinson, Lemmy, Tom Araya, Rob Zombie, and Tony Iommi, all of which prove articulate and interesting. He gets to spend a night drinking with Lemmy and another day hanging out in the home of Ronnie James Dio, posing with Dio while the two brandish a pair of swords.

Dunn starts by tracing the rise of heavy metal, whose roots can be heard in bands like Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf but was born with Black Sabbath's self-titled release. He discusses its classical and operatic roots, which give it its distinctive sound.

Two of the best interviews were by Zombie and Dickinson. Zombie offers up a memorable quote when he calls metal a "lifestyle music." "No one says, 'I was into Slayer--one summer. I've never met that guy," says Zombie. "I've only met the guy who has 'Slayer' carved across his chest." Dickinson says that metal provides its fans with an alternative universe through which they can vicariously live through the music. He also talks about how he approaches singing and showmanship. Good stuff here.

Dunn next travels to Wacken, Germany for the site of a massive annual outdoor metal festival. Here he has a memorable interview with the (very drunk) lead singer of Mayhem, who ends up telling Dunn and everyone else watching the interview to fuck off.

Next Dunn investigates the metal censorship era. Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider provides a retrospective on his testimony before Congress and Al and Tipper Gore in 1984. I had forgotten how badly the politicians underestimated Snider. It was fun to watch him knock a half-dozen holes in their case that metal was responsible for corrupting the youth of America and deserved censorship. Gore was a joke then (and remains one now).

Although it's been labeled by its detractors as obscene and suicidal, Dunn argues convincingly that metal is in fact the opposite. His claim that metal is empowering (anti-suicidal, in fact) and cathartic rings true. It gives its listeners a release from mundane life and allows them to enter worlds of fantasy, which is a huge part of its appeal for me.

My only complaint was that the film was too short: It could have been 2 1/2 hours instead of its brief 96 minutes of running time. I highly recommend it.


Falze said...

""No one says, 'I was into Slayer--one summer. I've never met that guy," says Zombie"

I kinda have to call out Rob on this one...remember when Seasons came out? MTV still had Headbangers Ball (worsening by the week) and they also had some sort of top 10 videos of the day thing during regular programming hours where the winners were determined by phone calls, I believe. For a brief shining while Slayer's War Ensemble video was topping the charts and a few other metal or near metal acts were also sneaking in. I think the cinematic Seasons In the Abyss video was up there also, with the pyramids and camels and whatever other silly crud they had going on in that one. So, yeah, for a few weeks, maybe "a summer", some people were "into Slayer". :D

Off-topic quite a bit, I just found the original Dawn Of The Dead on DVD at BJs for 4.99! Of course I had to grab it. They also had The Nude Bomb, which I don't think was available for the longest time on DVD, but I couldn't pull the trigger on that one for $13 or more, can't recall exactly how much. Might have to check out this Metal movie, I recall hearing about it, but didn't think it would be worth watching, maybe I was wrong.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Falze, yes, Metal, a Headbanger's Journey is worth watching, although it's no Nude Bomb. :).

Yeah, I think Zombie was being a little facetious, but in his defense 1990 (the year Seasons in the Abyss) was when metal was its peak. Then came Nirvana/grunge and it all fell apart (that was the time when all the phonies jumped off the bandwagon, and good riddance to the flannel-wearing vermin. How's grunge working out for you these days?)

Have you seen the original Dawn of the Dead? I love the film, but it's pretty darned gory.

Falze said...

I remember watching the original years ago, maybe at Pete's, when we were renting whatever looked the goriest while retaining some silliness. Silent Night, Deadly Night, anyone?

Have you watched Stay Alive, yet?

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Falze, no, I haven't watched Stay Alive yet. I have that and Record of Lodoss War on my "to watch" list, though, and will likely review them here once I do. Then I'll break down The Nude Bomb :).