Metal: A Headbanger's Journey
(Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen, & Jessica Joy Wise, Canada, 2005, 35mm, 96 mins.)
I miss the innocence I've known
Playing KISS covers
Beautiful and stoned.
-- Wilco, "Heavy Metal Drummer" (2002)
Once Metallica moved towards the mainstream--and metal and hip-hop parted ways--I lost interest. For awhile, though, I thought speed metal was the most exciting thing going. I suspect Sam Dunn feels the same way as he mostly focuses on the crunchier stuff in the excellent new documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey.
While Penelope Spheeris, in The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years (1988) looked at platinum-selling acts like Aerosmith, KISS, and Poison and while Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, in Some Kind of Monster (2004), looked exclusively at the monolithic Metallica, Dunn takes a different tack. Although The Metal Years is ridiculously entertaining, Spheeris doesn't present a history of the form, but rather a series of colorful--if occasionally disturbing--interviews. Arguably, her tone is condescending. Berlinger and Sinofsky, on the other hand, take a more sympathetic approach, but they're just looking at one band, not an entire genre.
Lifelong headbanger Dunn, along with Jessica Joy Wise and Scot McFadyen (Ginger Snaps), paint what may be the most comprehensive portrait of metal yet. From the outset, we learn that Dunn's background is in anthropology. Consequently, he doesn't just trace the "histoire(s)" of heavy metal, but breaks it down into its constituent parts. Some may consider it a fault that he didn't interview big names like Ozzy Osbourne and Steven Tyler, but then they already got their chance to talk about metal on film (and TV in the case of Osbourne). Whether Dunn failed to secure their services or chose not to, I couldn't say, but the result is less overlap between the three films than I expected. Granted, he also chats with Lemmy and Cooper, as Spheeris did, but who wouldn't want those legends in their metal opus? (Motörhead, guesting on a 1984 episode of The Young Ones, made almost as much of an impression on me as Garage Days Revisited.)
Dunn, who also narrates, starts at the beginning and moves up to the present, using interviews, timelines, and a bounty of archival footage. During the course of the film, the filmmaker starts in his hometown of Victoria, BC before traveling to Birmingham, UK (to interview Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi), Wacken, Germany (to attend the annual metal fest and chat with Ronny James Dio), Los Angeles (Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil), and Bergen, Norway (the current crop of Norwegian black metallists). Other subjects include Geddy Lee (Rush), Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), and filmmaker/musician Rob Zombie (White Zombie), along with members of Girlschool, Voivod, and Slipknot (in masks the entire time), while topics include class, gender, sexual orientation, and censorship.
Unlike Spheeris, Dunn wasn't looking for the most outrageous soundbites, but for speakers who could really articulate what metal means to them. There are exceptions, of course. He gives the Norwegian crew ample opportunity to explain themselves, but they don't do much with it--and their English appears to be pretty good, so you can't blame the language barrier for their hostile mumblings. (Mayhem and the rest are simply seething with rage against the Lutheran Church and several are now behind bars for arson. As one delightful gent notes, he has no regrets and looks forward to resuming his church-burning ways upon release.)
By seeking out well-spoken individuals like Dickinson and Snider, it may sound as if Dunn is attempting to defend metal from its detractors. He is. Fortunately, his tone isn't defensive, and he gets an assist from such non-stuffy academic/journalists as Deena Weinstein (Heavy Metal) and Chuck Klosterman (Fargo Rock City).
Dunn also speaks with a few fans to bring their perspective into play, but there's no way he can cover everything in 96 minutes. While he does an admirable job, for instance, in looking at women in metal, sexual orientation gets short shrift--the openly gay Halford can't be the whole story--and race isn't mentioned at all. It should be. There are few persons of color featured in the film, and that's a subject worth exploring. Also, it really would've made his "journey" complete if Dunn could've traveled to Brazil to speak with Latin rockers like Sepultura, who are featured on the soundtrack, but I'm still impressed he hit as many countries as he did.
I'm no metalhead, but I dug Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. Those looking for non-stop jokes at metal's expense are sure to come away disappointed as Dunn takes this stuff seriously. Nonetheless, there were a couple of women behind me who laughed through the whole thing, so I guess even a straightforward examination is gonna strike some as innately hilarious. Go figure. I got a few giggles out of the film to be sure, but most were intentional--like the dude at the Wacken fest who kept trying to get his toddler to make "devil horns" (the tyke was having none of it).
Because I grew up on metal, at least to some extent, I've always felt embarrassed that there are people who find it so hysterically funny--with the exception of the so-funny-it's-true Spinal Tap, of course. In this case, it was almost as if these ladies were laughing at me. So kudos to Dunn for crafting a film that treats the object of his affection with such dignity and respect. It's the ultimate fuck you to the haters.
Note: A two-DVD set release is scheduled for 5/23/06.
Metal: A Headbangers Journey plays Mar. 17-23, Fri.-Thurs., at 7 and 9pm at the Northwest Film Forum. Opening night features a concert by local metal band Grey at 11pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave, on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please visit www.nwfilmforum.org. You can also call 206/329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.
Postscript [3/28/06]: Due to popular demand, the run of Metal has been extended. The new dates/times are Sat. and Sun., April 1 and 2, at 7 and 9pm.