Like so many boys, I got into heavy metal as a teenager. I didn't do so because it gave me self-pity or a sense of righteousness -- as a teenager, I already had those traits. I really just enjoyed the songs, often had fun with the goofy lyrics and admired the talent of even the dopiest group of speed freaks.
It is that spirit that informs Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, the first documentary by Sam Dunn, who has since become the best cartographer of the genre on film. Dunn, a lanky Canadian with a friendly wit and an innate likability, could well have a film made about himself as the typical metal fan: not a Satan-worshiping, acne-covered misfit but a bit of a goof who found himself attracted to the fastest and heaviest music in the world.
Dunn confides in the audience at the start of the film that he majored in anthropology in college and even earned a graduate's degree and wrote a thesis. But here is his ultimate study, an overview of a small but intensely dedicated network of people around the world who speak different languages and have different perspectives but find common ground on one thing: metal.
So loyal are these fans, in fact, that heated debate exists over which bands can sport the label "metal." Dunn has great fun interviewing certified metal stars and throwing out names like Rage Against the Machine and Blue Cheer and seeing what happens. Slyly, Dunn assembles music historians who trace metal to down-tuned blues chords, tri-tones and even classical composers, leading to an ingenious fade from a recording of a Bach's harpsichord on "Prelude and Fugue in A Minor" into an Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption." There's no trace of irony in this comparison, nor should there be. Many of the more fantastical metal bands (generally lumped into a subgenre called "power metal") contains lyrics no more ridiculous than can be found in the mythologies in Wagner's Ring Cycle, and some players hone their craft as much as any virtuoso. (I would argue, however, that so many of these shredders lack the feel, which so many do not hear in classical music but is as evident as it is in blues).
The danger of a fan making a movie is that the temptation is often too great to simply sit back and enjoy the perks, to make a movie solely to get access to all the festivals and interviews a die-hard couldn't otherwise get. The flip side is that fans know more than a curious outsider, and Dunn exactly where to place the focus to wade through the tangled realm of metal and its endless off-shoots.
He provides a good cross-section of legends (Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, Alice Cooper, Ronnie James Dio), survivors of the '80s pop metal boom (hair metallers Vince Neill and Dee Snider) and the extremists of modern metal (Cannibal Corpse, Mayhem, assorted Scandinavian acts). Each interview develops some thread of metal's appeal, such as its confused sexuality, supposed moral evil and roots.
Dunn gets the best out of his subjects, who are so off-the-wall that the film works as a sort of all-star version of Spinal Tap. Dee Snider of Twisted Sister hilariously and shamelessly promotes his minor role in the fight against the Parents Music Resource Center in the '80s, explaining his thought process at the time thusly: "Carry the flag? Hell yeah! Braveheart, baby...Braveheart wasn't even out then, but that was the mentality."
He also chimes in on the advent of hair metal and the tendency of L.A.-based bands to cross-dress and wear makeup, correctly pointing out the sexual implications of men dressing that way to play before an audience consisting mostly of men. A metal DJ relates stories from the day, including the chestnut "There were guys on the strip who wanted to fuck the chicks in Poison."
Best of all, though, is Dunn's cheeky touch when it comes to those who take themselves too seriously. He meets with members of the band Mayhem, possibly the most infamous band in the various subgenres, with a vocalist who killed himself via a shotgun to the head (leading the surviving band members to make necklaces from skull fragments) and a bassist, Varg Vikernes, who not only burned churches but killed the group's guitarist partly in competition to see who was more metal (he won). All Dunn finds are two drunken slobs who sound more like rowdy fans, screaming the F-bomb to vaguely defined enemies as they continue to coast on the infamy of the previous members of the band.
When Dunn finally travels to Norway to interview the Satanic bands, the film becomes farce. Jørn Tunsberg, a guitarist for Hades Almighty, speaks approvingly of burning churches, but he looks so much like Chris Elliot I laugh hysterically every time I watch the movie. Then, he heads to a dark, closed tavern to speak to a man who goes by the name Gaahl (I can't believe he had the Gaahl to call himself that!). He ominously swirls blood-red wine in a glass and intones the name Satan as if summoning ol' Scratch. "What does Satan represent to you?" a cautious Dunn asks. *long pause, more swirling* "Freedom." Oh, I forgot: the guy is in a band called Gorgoroth which, for those of you playing at home, is taken from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, meaning these supposedly enlightened and brutal men get their inspiration from children's literature. Excessively well-written children's literature, yes, but children's literature nonetheless. I personally cannot wait to see the black metal band Azkaban kicking around Scandinavia one day.
Alice Cooper raucously points out the inanity behind all their corpse paint and attention-baiting arson, noting how many of these hard, "evil" guys trip over their tongues when they meet the man they rip off for a living. "'Golly, Alice Cooper, it's so good to meet you,' " Cooper sarcastically recreates. "'Would you mind giving me an autograph and my mom's over there.' 'Aren't you guys supposed to be Satan?' 'Well, we are, but...'" Cooper is a gold mine of quotes when it comes to any artist out to shock people, as he's been there, done that, sobered up and turned to golfing to get his jollies.
Yet Dunn has a way of gently exposing this gut-busting nonsense while still embracing the lunacy, just as any metal fan should. He cuts through some of the more aggressive reasoning for listening to metal and finds the core of the audience: those who consider themselves outsiders and find a kinship in a global network. Some of them might still brag about not conforming, but many openly embrace the idea of seeking out others like them to feel normal. "No one wants to be the weird kid," Rob Zombie says. "You just one day find you're the weird kid." This thread connects metal fans across the generations: the great and unkillable Lemmy from Motörhead mentions hanging out as a lad around the village phone box because it was the only public place with lighting, and the members of Slipknot jump forward to the present to discuss desperate ennui in middle America, where teens, as crazy and insulting as it sounds, really do need a way to vent the anger that comes with growing up in a place like Iowa that offers them so little.
The metal community becomes something of a support group for its members, fans working hard to promote both established artists and up-and-comers with homemade merchandise and self-printed CDs, while the bands show a genuine and deep appreciation for the people who can still pack open-air festivals to see them play. Ronnie James Dio, an immensely talented man who only got better with age until he tragically passed away only a few months ago, looks as if anyone could walk up and shake his hand and hear one of his fantastic jokes, and hopefully one of his many digs at KISS mastermind and professional prostitute Gene Simmons. I already miss Dio for his talent, but his charming interviews here re-opened those wounds and reminded me how kind so many legends of the genre can be compared to the rock gods elsewhere who wouldn't be caught dead with a fan unless he got something in return.
"It's so huge but some people don't even know it exists," Zombie says of the metal movement, which Dunn and his crew capture in all its contradictory glory. Neither worshipful nor condescending, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey achieves just the right balance of metal's various emotions, and the director's restrained but obvious enthusiasm makes for an hour and a half that passes in no time. It's no wonder two of Dunn's favorite groups -- Iron Maiden and Rush, both profiled here -- snatched him up to follow them on tour. It does not go into all the nooks and crannies of the genre and its sociological interpretations -- no one film could -- but Metal: A Headbanger's Journey is an excellent starting point for the mildly curious and a knowing bit of fun for the fans. Even if you hate metal, you'll at least laugh your ass off while watching