Last weekend at the Wisconsin Film Festival, I caught a showing of Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. It is a documentary about heavy metal music from the perspective of a lifelong fan named Sam Dunn, who also happens to be an anthropologist by trade. He describes his awkward high school years as an outcast for being a metalhead before heading to college. Dunn went on to learn about other cultures, more exotic than the Canadian one in which he grew up. Entering his fourth decade, he decided to look heavy metal music and why it is so derided by both the press and the public.
Dunn begins by looking at the genesis of the term and the genre. The term “heavy metal” came from the lyrics of “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf when referring to motorcycles. Then comes the great debate – who was the first heavy metal band? Just when you think he’s going to bestow this honor onto Blue Cheer, Dunn turns around and names Black Sabbath just like you knew he would. There are countless interviews with metal musicians in the film and they start here in earnest with Rob Zombie basically saying that the Sabs started it all – end of story. We are then introduced to various strains of metal music from the old guard through the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, thrash metal, power metal, speed metal, and so on.
One of the ideas posited early on is that fans of heavy metal tend to have a fuck you attitude, they are individualists who do their thing regardless of what is trendy & fashionable or what other people may think of them. The camera travels to Germany for the Wacken Festival where about 40,000 metal fans gather and bang their heads. After examining the metal fan, Dunn turns to the music itself and examines many of the stereotypes that the genre suffers. He confronts the Satanist tag and shows that the image for most bands is just that – an image. Now, I was always under the impression that King Diamond was genuinely a Satanist and there was a brief flash of KD in action, but apparently I was wrong. There’s some good interviews with Kerry King & Tom Araya of Slayer. King is an atheist and he speaks about his disdain for religion and how it comes out in his music. Araya, on the other hand, is religious and it’s interesting to hear the two express their views on the matter. Then we are introduced to Norwegian black metal via the band Mayhem. There’s quite a story here with former member Varg Vikernes being blatantly anti-Christian and having been convicted of murdering bandmate Øystein Aarseth as well as for arson as he torched a few churches.
Don’t get the impression that the film is all somber because it most certainly isn’t. The whole anti-metal crusade (backward masking and all) of the 1980s with Tipper Gore in the lead is given its due time. Dee Snider formerly of Twisted Sister in shown extensively telling the tale of his testimony against Gore, et al before a senate committee on the matter. Perhaps the funniest moments come from interviews with Ronnie James Dio. He rips on Gene Simmons of Kiss a few times and it’s absolutely hilarious. Plus he explains the origins of the devil horns as having come from his Italian mother who used to flash the hand sign to ward off evil spirits.
One of the most notable things about the film is how most of the musicians come off as being regular guys and gals. (Admittedly, Dunn doesn’t get into the gender inequality of musicians and fans much.) In fact, much of the film comes off as saying that, basically, the musicians and fans just love to go out and have fun; much of the metal image is an act and folks play along and have a good time.
If you missed it at the festival or aren’t a Madisonian but are in the upper Midwest, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago this month.