Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey

Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey
Written and Directed by: Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen, Jessica Joy Wise

Just about anyone over the age of 20 or so remembers the neon spandex and frizzy hair madness of the 80’s. Looking back, it seems absolutely preposterous that an era could be dominated by a musical trend that was known for its eye-melting fashion sense and over the top lifestyle. When most people think of heavy metal, these images are still at least part of what comes to mind. The truth is, however, that although the genre has long been ridiculed and criticized over the years, it has continued to evolve and progress — there’s a lot to be said for the resilience and staying power of metal. Now Sam Dunn, a lifelong metalhead and anthropologist by trade, is determined to set the record straight once and for all with his documentary, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey.

I was a little hesistant about seeing this movie for a few reasons, the first of which being that I’m sick of hearing about heavy metal as a joke. Sure, Spinal Tap was funny, FUBAR less so, but I didn’t need to see another movie that was just an excuse to mock metalheads. (I’m not saying there isn’t a lot to poke fun at here, just that it has become far too easy if you ask me.) The other thing is, being a small Canadian independent film, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie in terms of production quality.

I needn’t have worried though; the production values are quite high and there is an impressive list of big names being interviewed in the movie (not to mention a number of classic metal songs on the soundtrack). This is a surprisingly far reaching and definitive documentary in my opinion, and well worth seeing for fans and non-fans alike.

Dunn is not interested in ridiculing metal; he takes it quite seriously, although he does use Heavy Metal Parking Lot as a starting point. From here he takes it upon himself to disprove such negative portrayals of the music and its followers — and for the most part, he succeeds. This “headbanger’s journey” takes him all over the globe as he interviews everyone from Alice Cooper to Bruce Dickenson, Ronnie James Dio to Lemmy, Rob Zombie, Slipknot, Geddy Lee, Tom Morello and Dee Snider, all of whom are surprisingly clever and intelligible (well, except for maybe Lemmy that is). In addition to the musicians though, Dunn talks to music critics and academics, along with Spin writer and author of Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman.

Perhaps the most compelling segment is Dunn’s trip to Norway to interview members of the Norwegian Black Metal scene, some of whom were notoriously involved in a number of church burning incidents. It’s simultaneously disturbing and strange, and makes me wish he had spent more time examining this world (fortunately there’s a mini-documentary on this subject included on the DVD). The Mayhem interview is also a weird one, with the band members intoxicated and seemingly very angry.

The movie is far from an ego trip for Dunn, and although he injects himself liberally into the movie in addition to narrating it, he has a very honest, humble and intelligent way about him. He uses his anthropologist background as an excuse to delve into the cultural significance of metal, and explores topics such as religion, sexuality, gender issues, and censorship. He is also rather scientific in his dissection of the music’s origins and the various subgenres that have developed. Throughout the film he refers to a well-researched “family tree” (available also in more detail on the DVD) and tries to answer the question “who was the first heavy metal band?” (his answer: Black Sabbath).

Looking back, I’m not sure the movie really unearthed anything all that new for metal fans, but Dunn does a good job of defending the music he loves without getting too academic or pretentious. It is quite absorbing. I came away agreeing with Dunn’s belief that it is harmless entertainment and that all the inherent “evilness” is mainly used to shock and to sell records. He sees it as a way to exorcise and confront our demons as well.

Even if Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey didn’t necessarily give me a ton of new insight, it at least gave me more appreciation for its subject. One thing that I think could have given people even more appreciation for metal is a focus on the amazing talent that some of these musicians possess. He did draw some ties between metal and classical music, however, which I thought was quite interesting.

While there are plenty of additional directions the movie could have taken — exploring the rap-metal hybrid, for example — it all probably would have just diluted what Dunn wanted to accomplish. If you don’t like metal, I’m not sure this will convert you, but it may at least put things in a new light. On the other hand, metalheads may not learn anything they didn’t already know but they will feel vindicated and will identify with Dunn’s own enthusiasm for the music.

With a movie like this, along with the comebacks of some of the old rockers and the runaway success of the video game Guitar Hero, heavy metal may very well be on the verge of another boom in popularity. Attitudes are changing and people are learning to look past some of the inherent silliness, instead having fun with it while coming to understand what makes metal a very valid and powerful form of music in its own right.

Special features on the DVD include director’s audio commentary, the aforementioned mini-doc on Norwegian Black Metal, The Definitive Metal History Family Tree, and extended interviews and outtakes. — Sean

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