(c) Banger Productions
In 2005, Canadian filmmaker and musician Sam Dunn made a 96-minute documentary called Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, which as its title suggests was an exploration of heavy metal music. It examined the music’s roots, its development and its popularisation. It also examined its diversification into countless sub-genres – into everything from pop metal, glam metal and progressive metal to goth metal, industrial metal and the new wave of British heavy metal; from grunge, hard alternative and nu-metal to original hardcore, grindcore and metalcore; from doom metal, thrash metal and the first wave of black metal to Swedish death metal and Norwegian black metal. (There’s a difference, you know, and it’s important.)
In addition, Dunn’s documentary didn’t flinch from looking at heavy metal’s propensity for attracting controversy, such as accusations of misogyny and of inciting violence and that parent-bothering fascination that some metal bands have with Auld Nick himself… Satan!
Packed with interviews with musicians, producers, journalists, sociologists, musicologists and fans, what distinguished Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey from previous documentary and movie treatments of the music like The Decline of Western Civilisation: The Metal Years, Spinal Tap or the Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted films was the fact that it took its subject relatively seriously and dealt with it sympathetically. (As well as being a dyed-in-the-wool heavy metal fan, Dunn has a Master’s degree in anthropology, for which he wrote a thesis about Guatemalan refugees, so he is well equipped to study the cultures and sub-cultures that this body of music has engendered.) Any humour or silliness in the documentary tended to come from the interviewees themselves, either intentionally (the always witty Alice Cooper) or unintentionally (the hilariously po-faced, church-burning Norwegian black metal guys).
(c) Seville Pictures
The only problem with Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey was that its running time of 96 minutes was nowhere near long enough to do justice to its complex and fascinating subject. In 2011 Dunn tried to rectify this by making, with director and producer Scott McFadyen, an eleven-part TV documentary series called Metal Evolution, which was aired on the music channels MuchMore and VH1 Classic. This added up to eleven hours-worth of television that allowed Dunn to study the metal world in vastly more detail. He devoted episodes to the origins of the genre (classical music lovers, be aware that Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner deserve some of the credit, or blame, depending on your point of view); on its development during the 1970s in the USA and the UK; on the new wave of British heavy metal; and on some of the most prominent sub-genres that have appeared, namely glam metal, thrash metal, grunge, nu-metal, power metal and progressive metal. There was also an episode dedicated to ‘shock rock’, which is an approach, as opposed to a sound or style — the Grand Guignol / horror-movie theatrics of the likes of Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and Slipknot, guaranteed to inspire moral panics among generations of parents, politicians and churchmen.
As many fans noted at the time, though, Metal Evolution had one glaring omission. There was no coverage of the ‘extreme’ metal sub-genres that include death metal, black metal and grindcore – sub-genres that encompass such awesomely sonic and awesomely monikered bands as Cannibal Corpse (from Buffalo), Dying Fetus (from Maryland), Darkthrone (from Kolbotn in Norway), Carcass (from Liverpool), Napalm Death (from Solihull), Cradle of Filth (from Ipswich) and Extreme Noise Terror (also from Ipswich – actually, Ipswich is good at producing extreme metal). This was due to the networks’ reluctance to deal with the topic – the music and bands involved crossed what they believed was the line between acceptable and unacceptable taste. However, in April this year, Dunn and McFadyen were able to unveil what has become known as the ‘missing’ twelfth episode of Metal Evolution. This is devoted to extreme metal, was funded via a crowdsourcing campaign and is now available for viewing, free of charge, at the following address:
I didn’t see Metal Evolution when it was originally broadcast, because at the time I was living in Tunisia – which is a fairly un-metallic country, unless you can make it along to Le Plug bar in La Marsa on a weekend night. I have, however, watched most of the episodes now after hunting them down on the Internet. (There are half-a-dozen available on youtube, though with a variety of foreign-language subtitles at the bottom.) One thing that struck me while watching Metal Evolution was that, for a music characterised by its detractors as being loud, dumb and nasty noise made by loud, dumb and nasty people and consumed by other loud, dumb and nasty people, most of the interviewees were highly eloquent and entertaining. Among the 300-odd people Dunn interviewed for this project were the aforementioned Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Rob Zombie, Slash, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, Scott Ian of Anthrax and the mighty, warty force of nature that is Lemmy of Motorhead. They’re mainly the charming sort of people you could invite home and introduce to your mum, provided your mum has a high tolerance-level for corpse-style mascara, pentagram tattoos, skull rings, iron crosses and serial-killer masks.
However, it’s impossible to make even a 12-episode heavy metal documentary series that pleases everyone. Indeed, any heavy metal enthusiast worth his or her salt will probably be grumbling slightly about what is and isn’t covered in the series – since no filmmaker can ever satisfy the completist zeal for detail and accuracy possessed by an ardent fan.
In my case, I’d have liked to see a few things added or done differently. A little recognition could’ve been given to the role that AC/DC played in popularising heavy metal in the 1970s. The episode about the new wave of British heavy metal talked about the antagonism that existed between many metal bands of the late 1970s and the punk ones who were then shaking British popular music to its foundations, but something should’ve been said about Motorhead – a band who crossed the great punk-metal divide and were nearly as popular among pogoing Mohican-headed fans as they were among head-banging long-haired ones. Indeed, Lemmy has often included Sex Pistols and Ramones songs in the band’s sets and was even friends with Sid Vicious. (He once had the job of task of teaching Sid how to play bass guitar. Needless to say, he didn’t succeed.)
Furthermore, I think more should’ve been said in the nu-metal episode about this sub-genre’s antecedents – about Walk This Way, the 1987 collaboration between Run DMC and Aerosmith, plus the Beastie Boys, the soundtrack album for the 1993 movie Judgement Night and Ice T’s ground-breaking metal-rap band Body Count. And it would’ve been nice if the power metal episode had made mention of heavy metal’s most elderly performer – actor Sir Christopher Lee, who’s recorded with Rhapsody of Fire, Manowar and Richie Faulkner of Judas Priest. (Just the other week, Lee celebrated his 92nd birthday by releasing Metal Robot, an EP of heavy-metal versions of songs from the Don Quixote musical Man of La Mancha. Bless.)
And I’d have preferred it if Dunn hadn’t interviewed Ted Nugent because, basically, the man is a tosser.
Meanwhile, watching the episode about glam metal, the unspeakable sub-genre of posing, preening, spandex-clad, poodle-haired bands who emerged from Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip in the early 1980s, I couldn’t help wishing that Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Poison, Cinderella, Warrant and the rest of them had been buried forever under a million tons of radioactive sludge. As Anthrax’s Scott Ian commented during the episode: “We never actually backed going out and beating up people wearing spandex and having big, poofy, hair-sprayed hair… but I certainly never told anyone to not do it.”