Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey

I can’t really call myself a metal fan, though I dig some of it — my tastes in music are too weird and diverse to be pinned down to any one genre. But I understand the appeal of metal, because I’m a horror fan. It’s not too big a jump from the racket of Leatherface’s chainsaw to the racket of Tony Iommi’s riffs. Both are meant to electrify kids and scandalize their parents.

Metal is about cutting loose; in a way it’s a working-class hangover from the hippie era (would metal be possible without Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” and Dylan infamously going electric?). You don’t like peace, love, and beads? Fine, here’s blood, sex, and leather. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, hosted and overseen by metal fan and anthropologist Sam Dunn, is an appreciation that places the music in proper historical and social context. It begins with footage from the well-loved cult found object of metal sociology Heavy Metal Parking Lot, admitting up front that, yes, some metal fans are as dumb as a box of hair. But the rest of the movie brings on a variety of eloquent voices from both the fanbase and the gods of metal themselves.

If there’s one thing metal fans love almost as much as metal, it’s family-tree diagrams of the history of metal — Jack Black drew one on the chalkboard in School of Rock, and Dunn frequently refers to one, tracing metal’s immediate roots to Black Sabbath and its on-the-dole origins in Birmingham. It goes back further, of course, to the early masters of blues and their emphasis on the working man’s hardships. Like rap, metal is often dissed and distrusted by the elite; metal is also primarily white, something the movie doesn’t contradict, despite bands like Bad Brains and Ice-T’s side project Body Count.

Bruce Dickinson, still in fine voice, talks about reaching the very last kid in the very last row of the stadium. That’s kind of what metal is about, or is taken as by the fans. Dunn is too much an admirer, of course, to get into how metal was commodified and corporatized, in effect selling rebellion the way every transgressive music genre has been and reducing it to conformity. As King Missile so bitingly put it in “It’s Saturday”: “I want to be different, like everybody else I want to be like. I want to be just like all the different people.” But there is an undeniable primal appeal to the music anyway, and Dunn goes all around the world — Germany, where the metal-Woodstock Wacken Open Air Festival is held; Norway, where death-metal satanists set fire to churches — to paint a portrait of the music crossing borders.

Dee Snider speaks snarkily about the PMRC hearings (not the Gores’ finest hour); Ronnie James Dio can’t help tweaking Gene Simmons (who, Dio chuckles, “invented breathing and shoes”); Alice Cooper gets a good laugh out of the FUCKING INTENSE DOOOOD posturing of today’s metal bands, each straining to be more hardcore than the last. (No mention here of the shit-flinging GG Allin, sadly.) One of the more amusing theses is that metal has such a big dick it can afford to wear makeup and frills (Mötley Crüe, Poison), and in recent years metal has gotten big vaginas as well, with such bands as Kittie, Arch Enemy and Girlschool (whoa, what about Joan Jett, Patti Smith, Wendy O. Williams, and the Slits? Ah well, female metal deserves its own documentary).

Dunn is an easygoing guide, not a psycho-fan but a guy with a life outside of metal. Several professorial-looking types (musicologist Robert Walser makes some of the most cogent points) weigh in; hipster writer Chuck Klosterman comes off like a dorkier Tarantino, if that’s even possible. There’s a fascinating sidebar about “the devil’s tritone” and how metal (like Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung”) uses a particular sound that medieval people believed was a shout-out to Satan. (Go here for more.) True to its title, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey drifts around but stays personal throughout; it’s a fan’s movie that seeks to understand why the fans are fans — other than, of course, that the music totally rawks ass, dude.

As long as there are teenagers, there will be cultural flashpoints — from bobby-soxers to MySpace — that alarm the cognoscenti and the soccer moms. So be it. That’s how walls that need to be torn down are torn down. At its best, Dunn’s journey reminds us that even the most self-consciously grotesque examples of the scene, like Cannibal Corpse and its album artwork and lyrics about monsters being torn out of wombs, are essentially just loud, wild, crazy reassertions of freedom, bellowing out that devil’s tritone over a sea of moshing, crowd-surfing, head-banging kids. Or adults.

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