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Friday, July 7, 2006

Scratch your head while banging it

Metal: A Headbanger's Journey

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Sam Dunn
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

With his documentary "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey," director Sam Dunn sets out a pretty clear agenda. As a self-professed metal fan and student of anthropology, Dunn has attempted to "explain" the metal tribe to outsiders, especially those who don't get it.

News photo
Heavy metal fans give horned-devil signs.

I must admit, my interest was piqued: I was looking forward to learning what makes a man -- and it is mostly men -- nurture such a fascination with distorted guitars, Satan, and tight pants. But the film only partly succeeds in its mission, mostly due to Dunn's dual roles here: an anthropologist, by nature, needs to have a critical distance from the society he puts under the microscope. Dunn, however, displays a missionary's zeal in preaching the glory of metal, and explaining away its bad image.

Dunn, who appears in the film narrating, interviewing his idols, and headbanging with devil-horn fingers raised, starts off by saying how metal is misunderstood: Critics find it unsophisticated, politicians claim that it "glorifies evil," the general public shuns it as a domain of obsessive outcasts. Dunn seeks to dispel what he sees as misconceptions, but that seems easier said than done. When so much of the style is obsessed with Satan, death and occult imagery it can't really complain about being demonized.

Dunn begins by tracing the roots of heavy metal music, the earliest citation of which seems to be in the 1968 Steppenwolf song "Born To Be Wild" (with its reference to "heavy metal thunder"). But the vast consensus of interviewees -- mostly members of metal bands, like Tony Iommi, Dee Snider, Rob Zombie, and, uh, Necrobutcher -- all point to one band in particular: Black Sabbath. They took the hard rock of bands like Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin to what Dunn calls "a darker, more sinister place." (The band's frontman, Ozzy Osbourne, is conspicuously absent from this doc.)

The film then traces the development -- or lack thereof -- of the music over the next four decades. The trend soon becomes apparent: "Be more evil than the band that came before you," is how one interviewee puts it, and by the time you get to bands like Slipknot and Mayhem, Black Sabbath look positively tame. The band Venom note that "it's a way for bands to get popular; extremism always sells." It's a good point, one that a less-awestruck filmmaker than Dunn would have explored further.

Dunn's thesis seems to be that all the clamor about evil and death seems to be just a pose, and shouldn't be taken seriously. He goes to Norway to interview members of black metal bands that have been convicted of church burnings, and presents them as a scary aberration. And yet, without endorsing such crimes, these "aberrations" at least have the strength of conviction. They sing of Satanism and believe it, which artistically and ethically is a more natural position than singing about Satanism and not meaning a thing. An art form that consists of empty transgression begs the question "why?" Slipknot give one answer: "Nobody really wants Satan to rule the world -- it's just cool."

"A Headbanger's Journey" goes on to explore sexuality and homosexuality in the music, the tribal nature of the scene's self-sustaining community, and the music's appeal for its listeners, which is best summed up by Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson: "It gets inside the mind of the eternal 15-year-old." While others would see this as evidence of juvenility, metalheads wear this refusal to mature as a badge of honor. Most of the reasons Dunn unearths, though -- such as metal's appeal to kids who don't fit in, who want some sort of community -- could apply to any subculture: goths, punks, ravers, dead-heads, skaters, et al. Not all of these are so relentlessly negative, however, so the question remains: Why the attraction to metal?

A larger question Dunn ignores is how much of a bastion of difference metal truly is. Many of its biggest bands -- Metallica, Ozzy, Zeppelin, Korn, Van Halen -- are positively mainstream. The metal subculture -- and many others -- ultimately propagates a lie: take me as I am, it insists, an outsider; accept me for my uniqueness and difference. But in the end, metal offers more of the same: conformity, and a more rigid and narrow conformity than most. The film's scenes of crowds at metal shows, uniformly clad in black and all raising the same two-fingered salute to soundalike angry-guitar bands, resemble the mass conformity of fascism more than any individuality.

There are some "Spinal Tap"-like moments of hilarity here: The academic who seriously describes metal as "a way of thinking about gender by not thinking about gender," or the belching, belligerent backstage interview with Mayhem, who insist "we're the best metal band in the universe, if people don't recognize that, then f*** them!" Moments later, Dunn asks in all seriousness, "Why has metal been so consistently stereotyped?" Duuuude, watch your own film!

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