|by Greg Ursic
When I was in grade 12, the powers that be at my high school decided to transfer several students from the advanced composition class into the “stoner section” a.k.a. remedial English. The theory was that honour roll students could mentor students who weren’t doing as well. As one of the “lucky” guinea pigs, I was somewhat apprehensive as I waded through the sea of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden T-shirts and tried to avoid the baleful stares. I worried that not only would I be ostracized and possibly crucified worse yet I could be looking at a blown G.P.A.
Although initially treated like an interloper, my willingness to exchange insults and help them with their assignments lead to my eventual acceptance. I soon learned that despite their penchant for skipping class and certain “indulgences” of the herbal variety we actually had a lot in common. I was also impressed by their dedication to music: whereas I had friends who tried to sound erudite as they deconconstructed classical music or art rock, the headbangers wore their devotion to heavy metal on their sleeves, often literally. Reflecting on the primal sounds of the music and the passion of its adherents I’m surprised it has taken this long for someone to make a serious movie about this unique subculture.
Sam Dunn and Scot McFayden - the co-writers/co-directors/co-producers of Metal: A Headbangers Journey have clearly done their homework: the documentary is a fascinating look at one of the most overlooked and underrated genres in music, boasting interviews with artists from across the spectrum that is known as metal. It is also one of the most engaging documentaries on any subject that I’ve seen in some time.
When the duo wanders into the media office however, I wonder whether they’re up for the interview as they’re looking more than a little worse for wear. Apparently they had gotten together with friends after the screening and decided to party like the proverbial rockstars, and it didn’t sit too well with them. As we ride the elevator to the interview suite, they have but one request – big glasses of water. The first thing we do when we walk into the interview suite is dim the lights, pull the shades and I promise to talk quietly.
Knowing that Dunn has a Masters in Anthropology, I’m curious as to whether the film grew out of his thesis - mainly, I want to know how he sold a thesis committee on an anthropological review of Heavy Metal. Unfortunately, for me he’s a humanitarian at heart “I started working on this after I finished the thesis,” he explains. “I was working as a researcher with Guatemalan refugees [at] the Community Health there for about 3 years [and] toward the end of my time there in 98 Scott and I talked about making the movie.” McFayden smiles, “and only five and half years later [it’s done]”. Pitching the doc was their first stumbling block.
“We approached Roadrunner Records [where McFayden worked] and a couple of other record companies and did some travelling on our own dime to LA and New York. We had countless meetings convincing people that this was a doc that needed to be made, and that this was a good time to do it.” A mischievous grin crosses Dunn’s face “It was a long process of working people over - a lot of headlocks, and a lot of noogies.
McFayden freely admits that they were working on a wing and prayer. “We really had no idea what we were doing. I mean we'd never made a film before and it was a huge, huge subject we were trying to tackle and they [studios] were like "How are you going to do that? And we're like "look, it's all in the book, we've got it all here." [points to an imaginary book]” Their blind eyed optimism soon won them converts.
“We got some great support [from] Sanctuary Records and a broadcast deal with Bravo and things just started to come together. Iron Maiden's manager Ron Smallwood was very supportive right from the get go. So that's kind of the initial phase of how it came together with the financing.” With cash in hand, and some connections, all they needed to do was line up the rest of the interviews. How hard could it be?
McFayden grimaces – whether its painful memories flooding back or just the sound of vacuuming next door I’m not quite sure. “We knew Iron Maiden was going to sign on, but it was much more difficult than we thought.” The catch-22 of documentary filmmaking soon reared its ugly head. “Everyone always wants to know "Who do you have [doing interviews] and we'd say "Well, no one". After several false starts, they went back to the source. “When we went to interview Ron, we said "Ron, we're having a really hard time getting people and he wrote some letters for us.” Dunn nods in agreement “He was definitely a catalyst to getting us bigger names…we got Bruce Dickinson [who does vocals for Iron Maiden] early on, then Ronny James Dio [who does vocals for Dio] and Vokken came through. They were pretty crucial.”
Having interviewed a few people that I’ve admired, I wonder whether the fan in Dunn ever succumbed to a “We’re Not Worthy” moment in the presence of his idols. “Of course there's that moment where you're like “Is this really happening?” he admits, “but you really gotta throw away all that hero-worshipping: we were on a schedule, we had a crew, and we just lugged all this gear across Europe.” There are other time constraints as well “I mean you've got Bruce Dickinson he's going to say these things about fans and metal and you gotta get it, so the pressures on, because he’s a commercial pilot and he's got to rush off and fly a plane.”
One of the most surprising elements of the doc for me was the story surrounding Heavy Metal’s genesis, indeed had it not been for an instant of fortuitous fluke, Black Sabbath might still be a jazz-blues band. As McFayden explains “Toni [Iommi from Black Sabbath] came up with this cord [the infamous diminished fourth or tritone aka the devil’s note] that gave this eerie sound. The hair stood up on his arms and he said "That's evil" and then they had to kind of create lyrics that matched that. It was the music and it's response to something inside and then everything else was layered on top of it.”
While Sabbath successfully combined the music with the powerful imagery that has come to define the genre, as we know it today, they are wrongly credited for having popularized one of the most enduring symbols in heavy metal. “Who can think of Sabbath” Dunn asks “without an upside down cross? But we looked at all the albums and we couldn’t find any. [But] the fans wanted a Satanic band [because] Satan is cooler than God, end of story, evil is always more interesting.” Dunn and McFayden are determined to disassociate the image from the concept.
With the exception of the excerpt from the short Heavy Metal Parking Lot that plays in Headbangers’ opening sequence, stereotypical Metal fans are notably absent. Dunn was quick to point out that “There is a grain of truth in every stereotype, but it's only a grain. We filled out the rest of the sandbox.” Dunn’s parents mirror society’s views of Metal fans and consider their son to be “the” anomaly. “They're like " Sam you were the exception you played on the basketball team, you were valedictorian, you were well rounded, you're kind of a humanitarian, and left leaning." And I'm like "You know what, I'm not as much as an exception as you think I am. Stereotypes are convenient and they're funny, but there was so much more to the story and it was more about going and showing that we don't all have devil tails wagging between our legs.”
Okay, a valid point, but I was still waiting for the Armani clad CA or lab coated professor to step up and flash the horns. “At one time we wrote one of those guys into our treatment, “ McFayden admits, “but it didn't come out” There were, however, less than subtle off-screen nods that caught even the duo by surprise .
Mcfayden laughs as he remembers sitting down with their lawyer, who, before signing some paperwork intoned “for those about to rock." Dunn’s favorite anecdote involved an e-mail from one of the people at the Ontario media Development Corporation. “At the bottom [of the list] after a bunch of deliverables [he wrote] “Varg or Euronymous: who is the real visionary?” Dunn laughs, still in disbelief, “This guy knows about Norwegian Black Metal [a very obscure sub-genre]? I mean what the hell?!? While we laugh about the misperceptions there is a darker side to the debate.
With the recent resurgence in conservative right wing Christianity there has been a renewed attack on Heavy Metal: Slipknot, Slayer and Cannibal Corpse have all been sued for inciting fans to violence, and Clearchannel refused to play certain songs in the aftermath of 9/11. The high profile offensives launched by the likes of Tipper Gore’s Parental Music Resource Center (during which she and her thick-headed minions received a much deserved verbal spanking from Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider who proved that Metal Heads could be incredibly articulate), have given way to a more insidious approach.
McFayden is clearly disturbed by the new trend. “They censor albums that are sold in Wal-Mart, and you don't know. There will be a number on the back of the CD saying 2 or 3, so you have versioning without the public knowing it.” Dunn shakes his head. “It's more subversive now, under the radar. My impression is that like Dee Snider says "It's worse when you don't know, it's almost more subversive. Tipper Gore standing up and waving her fist is more obvious.”
It doesn’t help when certain members of the Norwegian Black Metal are blatantly anti-Christian (band members embarked on an arson spree in which several churches were razed by flames) and openly embrace violence elements. Even most diehard Metal Heads find them disturbing however, and just as I’m about to delve into the perceived dichotomy, Dunn turns the tables on me. “Did you like the film?”
I blurt out “I thoroughly enjoyed it.” Not wanting to sound like a witless sycophant I continue, “What I really liked but at the same time drove me insane was the heavy metal ladder [an amazingly detailed family tree that tracks all the metal bands and categorizes them]. It was never on-screen long enough to see the whole thing, and it’s not in the press notes or on your website. Will it at least be on the DVD?” Apparently I’m not the first one to be simultaneously awed and frustrated. Dunn notes that “…everyone's been asking us [for the tree]. Our plan was to do something interactive With the DVD where you can move it around.”
I remark that it must have taken an inordinate amount of research to compile the information and put it together as a coherent whole and Dunn laughs “Yeah. Well, sadly, no, it's the kind of stuff that I’ve obsessed over - it was kind of already on my computer and we cleaned it up just before the film. It took us a long time to figure out how do incorporate it into the film, [but] the chart became much more than I ever imagined, which is great. Even nonmetal fans are curious to know how this thing fits together.”
Dunn is quick to point out that the tree is not the last word on the subject. “It's a guideline and it's meant to get people talking. Maybe it will be an ongoing debate and it will continue to be revised, and we'll keep going back and there will be polka metal.” We all stop for a moment as we envision the bizarre spectacle, then Dunn continues, “I thought of a fridge thing where all the bands have their own fridge magnet and people could move them around, move the categories change the category names. I note that this would be a great novelty for Rock Shops for the Metal Head with everything or better yet, the perfect DVD bonus. Dunn whispers to Scott “hey, we should write that down somewhere.” Clearly one can never underestimate the powers of learning – legitimize it and they will come.
Realizing that we’ve run well past our allotted time, I quickly ask what they hope audiences take away from the film. “It's about, reshaping peoples' perspectives about Metal and presenting it in a way that they hopefully haven't thought about,” Dunn explains. “Whether you're a Metal head or not, I hope that Metal fans will get something out of it as well, as a celebration of the music and for non Metal fans, hopefully they'll come away from it with a different view.” McFayden recalls the reaction of a fan at a post-screening Q&A who summed up their vision. “In Halifax a guy got up and said, "Thanks for making a film that for once didn't make up look like freaks!" The way he said it - he just stood up and said it - that was such a visceral response and just summed up the movie.”
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1742
originally posted: 02/26/06 11:25:41
last updated: 04/07/06 18:21:21