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.