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DVD Review: Metal – A Headbanger’s Journey

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Metal – A Headbanger’s Journey begins with footage from 1986 with kids gathering for a rock festival. They’re partying, playing air guitar, dressed in proper attire of black t-shirts or no shirts at all, but most of all, they just look like they are out for a good time. But, someone is out to ruin their fun…

The film switches to the September 19, 1985 Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) Senate hearings. The group published their “Filthy Fifteen” list of songs, along with their interpretation of what the lyrics are about. Artists included Venom, Mercyful Fate, Def Leppard, Prince, Sheena Easton, Vanity, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, among others.

Looking precisely like he just left the stage, singer Dee Snider, addressed the Senate suits, including future VP Al Gore. It’s interesting to note that in part of Snider’s speech which wasn’t included in the film, he explained that he was raised a Christian and follows many of the same ideals, doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs and is a married father of a three year old. In other words, he was showing that beneath his mountainous blonde mane, he’s actually not unlike most adults, except that he sings in a heavy metal band.

“Since I seem to be the only person addressing this committee today who has been a direct target of accusations from the presumably responsible PMRC, I would like to use this occasion to speak on a more personal note and show just how unfair the whole concept of lyrical interpretation and judgment can be and how many times this can amount to little more than character assassination.”

The hysteria surrounding the interest questionable lyrics was described as being the “moral panic of the day.” Despite the farce of the hearings, the music industry adopted the PMRC sticker rating system, which actually caused sales to increase in the case of some artists – forbidden fruit.

Sam Dunn introduces himself. He’s earned a Masters in Anthropology and his thesis was on the Guatemalan refugees, but he always wanted to do a study about heavy metal. He’s a skinny, long-haired fan and looks indistinguishable from the masses of metal fans from 1986, most of whom also probably grew up to be…responsible, normal adults. Sam’s a scholar and his approach to look at metal from a more intellectual point of view, doesn’t always work.

Take the interview with the band Mayhem. They basically spewed forth swears and boasts about how they are the best band in the world and said absolutely nothing of substance. Dunn included the clip but mentioned that beer and interviews sometimes doesn’t mix. A more serious documentary would have cut this footage out. So, don’t go looking for something to base a thesis on, but do be prepared to be entertained and mildly educated about various aspects of the metal world.

Mars Bonfire, the stage name for musician Dennis Edmonton (1943), was the person who wrote the Steppenwolf classic “Born To Be Wild,” which mentions the term “heavy metal” for the first time. I didn’t know he was a Canadian or what his name was. Now I know.

People weighed in with their opinions of the first heavy metal band. Some cite Blue Cheer but most mentioned Black Sabbath. This led to an interview with Black Sabbath guitarist and leader Tony Iommi. According to Wikipedia, “The tritone, as its name implies, is a musical interval that spans three whole tones or six semitones. The two most basic types of tritone are the augmented fourth and the diminished fifth.”

They also cited examples of where we hear the tritone, known as the Devil’s interval, in songs such as Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath,” Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, Liszt’s Dante Sonata, the music of Slayer and King Crimson and believe it or not, in the Simpsons theme and the musical West Side Story.

Iommi simply thought the “tritone” sounded evil and wrote lyrics to go along with the sound. Later on, Black Sabbath really took advantage of the demonic imagery in order to make a lot of money and have a schtick to really make them stand apart from other bands.

This led to a discussion of the classical influences in heavy metal, something that was obvious to me but was totally oblivious to a long-time rock fan who i mentioned the film to today. To illustrate the point, they play Bach on a harpsichord and seamlessly segue to Eddie Van Halen playing Bach-like material (if not Bach) on his electric guitar.

The other major influence in metal was also discussed, the blues. Tony Iommi actually mentioned that Sabbath were essentially a blues and jazz band at the beginning, and were also influenced by the dire working class, poor neighborhoods that they grew up in.

Other themes and connections to metal, such as sexuality, how dressing like women is actually extreme masculinity, religion, church burnings in Norway, violence and gore. Tom Araya, the lead singer in Slayer, raised a Catholic, quipped that religion was the biggest brain washing tool in America and that art is a reflection of society and that they’re just picking up the darker reflections. He also mentioned that “everyone knows what’s wrong, the things you do not do. The people who don’t understand that aren’t connected with themselves spiritually.”

That’s quite a profound statement from someone who likes to have provocative song titles simply because it will get them a lot of attention. Slayer is simply trying to stay in the spotlight just like every other band, and who can blame them?

Alice Cooper was interviewed a few times and he proved to be one of the most interesting people Dunn spoke with. Regarding Satanism, Cooper said, “If you’re looking for Satanism, don’t look to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all Halloween.” He went on to recount how when he meets black metal bands in Norwegian shopping malls, how they seem like the most harmless people, yet he marvels at the one up-man-ship they have between them, to be more extreme than the next band.

Dunn’s trip to Norway to explore one of metal’s most notorious and recent sub-genres, Norwegian Black Metal, was quite interesting and somewhat sad at the same time. He noted that Norway is 87% Lutheran but their biggest cultural export is, ironically, Satanic Black Metal and he describes it as punk meets Wagner dressed as Alice Cooper.

There’s no way to discuss Norway’s metal scene without talking about the burning of churches by some metal musicians. The bands see Christianity as something that was forced upon Norway about 1000 years ago and it’s the big bad guy. They see Satanism as something for people who are born to be kings, strong, and free.

It’s not for the timid or weak. By this definition, a church minister said that the Satanists will always be in small numbers since most people are not like them. As far as Alice Cooper is concerned, however, it’s all so Spinal Tap to him.

Cooper was one of the most reviled performers in popular music in the seventies by those who didn’t understand him. He went on to say “There’s more blood in Macbeth than in my show, and that’s required reading in school.”

The topic of suicide rears its ugly head but Dunn doesn’t get too much into the stories about bands being sued for causing kids to commit suicide, which is a pathetic accusation in the first place. It’s noted by UCLA musicologist Robert Walser that the most powerful predictor of whether someone will commit suicide is the feeling of helplessness… but no one listens to metal to feel helpless.

The documentary is a terrific starting point to gaining an understanding of what makes metal fans such a brotherhood. It intelligently discusses the differences between the major categories of metal and it may surprise you by how many sub-genres he identifies. There is so much to the world of metal, so many more people who could have been interviewed that I hope more intelligent films of this ilk are made.

Dunn also peppered the film with insightful analysis and commentaries from members of academia who are knowledgeable about metal, journalists, a musicologist and industry insiders, including Brian Slagel, Bob Ezrin, and Malcome Dome. Ronnie James Dio and Bruce Dickinson were very interesting to listen to as were Cannibal Corpse, Angela from Arch Enemy, Geddy Lee, Lemmy and the world’s most famous groupie, Pamela Des Barres. The who’s who of who didn’t appear in the film astonishes, such as Metallica, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, and so on. I’m hoping that someone makes a follow up.

My rating for this film is 4/5. Look for the double DVD version on sale soon.

About Triniman

Almost weekly, Triniman catches new movies, and adds one or two CDs to his collection. Due to time constraints, he blogs about only 5% of the CDs, books and DVDs that he purchases. Holed up in the geographic centre of North America, the cultural mecca of Canada, and the sunniest city north of the 49th, Winnipeg, Triniman blogs a bit when he's not swatting mosquitoes, shoveling snow or golfing.