Last night I wandered into a cinema playing Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. Now I’m not a metal fan myself, but like most good documentaries, Metal allows the relatively uninitiated to discover what the fuss is all about. In fact, following co-director and metal fan Sam Dunn around the world as he gives us an overview of the music and culture of heavy metal, you often feel like you’re sitting in Metal 101 and cramming for an exam. The film’s heavy-handed pedagogical approach, complete with chapter headings, is one of the documentary’s biggest weaknesses.
The other is its defensive tone: as Dunn’s co-director Scot McFadyen puts it, we’re invited “on a global journey to find out why this music has been consistently stereotyped, dismissed and condemned.” The filmmakers are right to draw attention to the American conservatives’ crusade to equate metal with evil, and headbangers with sinners on the road to perdition. It’s a shame they do so with such righteous indignation: a bit of humor when dealing with these already self-parodying PTA politico-moms might’ve lightened the tone. After all, metal is not the only music born out of oppression…
Much fuss is made about what makes metal such a unique sub-culture, but I wasn’t convinced. All of the so-called unique characteristics (the persecution, the dress-code, the tribal mentality…) could just as well be applied to other scenes. Acid house and rave culture come to mind, but really, aren’t we talking about the entire history of music-based youth culture?
Nevertheless, this conventional Canadian doc does manage to give an honest fanboy overview of the genre, taking us on location to the US, the UK, Germany’s Wacken Open Air festival and even Norway, where Dunn boldly tracks down some church-burning proponents of the Black Metal sub-genre. Along the way, he gets good access to some of the biggest names in the field, including Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper, Vince Neil, Ronnie James Dio and Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson.
Most of these musicians are articulate and eloquent when speaking about the genre, and it’s easy to understand the devotion these guys inspire across the Western world. There are also valuable sociological insights to be gained in further interviews with musicologists and sociologists Chuck Klosterman and Donna Gaines. Their analysis of gender confusion in heavy metal is superficial but thoroughly entertaining.
In the end though, the charming enthusiasm of the filmmaker-as-fan wears thin. For the audience, the lack of critical distance demonstrated by Dunn and McFadyen can be little frustrating. No attention is paid, for example, to metal as Big Business, and the contradictions between the outcast, rebellious nature of the headbanger and its commercial appropriation and manipulation by multinationals operating in and around the music industry.
Recent rockumentaries such as Dig! and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster have much more to offer than Metal. They use the music as a mere departure point on a journey to get to something more essential about artists’ neurotic and often pathological relationship with the music, the scene and industry that spawned them.