Heavy metal music has always been either wholeheartedly embraced, its musicians revered as demigods by legions who worship them, or simply written off as nonsensical noise punctuated by screaming. Aside from rap, no other genre in music history is more adored and reviled in equal measures. Even during the 1980s (metal’s heyday as the most popular music in the world), there was seldom any middle ground.
But like anything else which reaches the status of cultural relevance, heavy metal found its way onto the big screen through concert films, documentaries, comedies and – with obvious inevitability – horror movies. Once the genre gained a foothold in our public awareness (whether we wanted it to or not), metal became the subject of numerous films, both fictional and non-fictional.
Unlike movies which gratuitously include a popular heavy metal tune for the sake of releasing soundtrack albums, the following list consists of theatrical films where metal is either the subject, part of the plot or, in one case, the score itself plays a major part in its entertainment value. Some preach to the converted, while others seem to share the same contempt of those who profess to hate this music.
A few might even change one’s negative assessment of the genre and those who love it. Whatever the case, these ten films are the best which feature heavy metal as a central component (ironically, Heavy Metal isn’t among them because, unless there’s a bong clutched in your fist, it’s a truly terrible movie).
10. Black and Blue (1981)
1980…Blue Oyster Cult were about as big as they would ever get; Black Sabbath were in the midst of a brief resurgence of relevance and popularity when Ronnie James Dio showed he was more than capable of filling the considerable void left by original vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. This was just before the likes of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and a slew of MTV-friendly hair bands redefined heavy metal for a new generation.
Today, music artists release live videos fairly regularly, but before there was a VCR or DVD player in every home (or yahoos posting entire shows on YouTube with their iPhones), recorded concerts were often released theatrically. Some, like Woodstock and The Last Waltz, have become enduring classics, but most played a weekend or two for the college and midnight movie crowd before disappearing. Black and Blue was one of the latter. While not the first concert film, it was likely the first heavy metal concert film.
The film documents a co-headlining tour featuring Blue Oyster Cult (BOC) and Black Sabbath at the peak of their powers. It isn’t anything remarkable from a creative standpoint – no fantasy sequences, insightful backstage interviews or special effects outside of what the bands present onstage – but the performances themselves are outstanding (especially the late Ronnie James Dio, who was just beginning to establish himself as one of metal’s greatest vocalists). Though lacking an equally dynamic frontman, BOC knew how to put on a show (they were one of the first bands to incorporate lasers in their performances).
Once metal exploded in popularity in the early 80s, hairy, mustachioed guitarists where no longer cool (no matter how talented), immediately rendering Black and Blue a period piece. Today, the film is a coveted rarity by longtime fans of either band, since it has never been given a proper DVD or Blu-Ray release, though bootleg copies have been circulating for years.
9. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
Just as Michael Jordan once proved being the greatest basketball player of all time doesn’t necessarily mean you can play baseball, Stephen King showed that being a great writer doesn’t make one a great filmmaker. His lone directorial effort, Maximum Overdrive, in which the world’s machines turn on humanity, was one of the more critically savaged films of the 80s.
Is it that bad? In many ways, yes. Despite King’s established skill at creating terror from mundane situations and populating his stories with complex characters we can identify film, Maximum Overdrive is loaded with grown-worthy dialogue, gratuitous gore, cartoon caricatures and a surprising amount of bathroom humor. Still, even though the aforementioned problems with the film tend to negate any attempts at true horror, Maximum Overdrive is a lot of mindless fun, punctuated by a thundering soundtrack from none other than AC/DC.
Unlike movies which gratuitously include enough songs by various artists to justify a soundtrack CD, AC/DC actually composed the entire score (a combination of established hits and incidental music), and it plays a huge part in establishing the overall tone of the film as more of a goofy and audacious action adventure than anything resembling the horrors for which King is renowned. Along with allowing us the dubious pleasure of seeing a kid crushed by a steamroller, AC/DC’s rousing score is arguably the best part of the film, making it well worth watching…at maximum volume.
8. The Gate (1987)
In the late 80s, heavy metal was the most popular genre in the world, and generally the most feared by those convinced the music was inciting kids to become violent, kill themselves or, worst of all, fall in league with Satan. A more innocent time (before rap artists became public whipping boys for everything wrong in society), Satanic panic briefly had some folks more concerned with their kids succumbing to the dark power of Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast” than drugs or pre-marital sex. The Devil himself could be lurking within a song’s lyrics and the grooves of a record.
Since the musically aggressive nature of metal lent itself to horror related subjects (just check out any of Slayer’s early lyrics), a number of horror films exploited everything we always feared about it. The best of them was 1987’s The Gate, a low budget Canadian film starring a very young Stephen Dorff as a boy who discovers the massive hole in his backyard is actually a gateway to Hell, opened when he and his best friend recite lyrics from a heavy metal album by the (fictional) band, Sacrifyx.
Despite its limited budget, The Gate is visually impressive and ambitious. Heavy metal music isn’t central to the story itself, but the catalyst for the events which transpire. The movie isn’t particularly scary, though still dark, disturbing and somber, especially when dealing with the loss of loved ones. It also becomes unexpectedly heartwarming without ever lapsing into sloppy sentimentality. The film benefits from likeable characters, terrific low-key performances and a smart script which seems to understand how the adolescent mind actually works (no small feat).
A sleeper hit at the time, The Gate is a forgotten gem no one ever talks about today. Perhaps part of that is due to its premise, which might seem dated since Satanic panic now seems as quaint as Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. Still, it remains an effective little chiller, and surprisingly family friendly considering the demonic subject matter.
7. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)
The Canadian band, Anvil, was heavily touted in the early 80s as the next big thing. Their early albums – praised by such luminaries as Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and Motorhead’s Lemmy – had a considerable influence on what would ultimately become thrash metal. Instead, Anvil went nowhere and faded into obscurity, but founding members Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner never stopped trying to grab that brass ring.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil tells their sad-yet-inspiring story, catching up with these lifelong friends three decades later. Anvil is still plugging away, playing bars on weekends in their hometown to a tiny group of fans who still love them, though forced to take menial day jobs to help pay the bills. When a German promoter offers them the opportunity for a European tour, they jump at the chance (perhaps their last one). However, the tour is a poorly-planned disaster, as are Anvil’s efforts to record and release a new album. It’s This is Spinal Tap all over again, only this time it’s all real.
Though a documentary, director (and lifelong Anvil fan) Sacha Gervasi understands the need for unique and likable characters the audience can identify with. Now in their 50s, Kudlow & Reiner still cling to the dwindling dream of rock stardom, which is oddly endearing even when we’re laughing at the pitfalls they encounter during their tour.
Despite every obstacle thrown at them, Kudlow remains almost hopelessly optimistic, while Reiner is more laid back and rolls with the punches (hey, he’s a drummer). They’re both really nice guys, so even though Anvil isn’t a great band and we often have fun at their expense, we also find ourselves rooting for them to finally find the success that has eluded them for decades.
It’s not always easy for a documentary to instill humor, drama, suspense or heartwarming moments, yet Anvil! The Story of Anvil manages to accomplish all of that with a story as compelling as any fictional film. Best of all, one doesn’t necessarily need to be a metal fan to enjoy it. Ironically, this film gave Anvil the biggest shot-in-the-arm of their entire career, resulting in world tours and several more albums.
6. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Before Wayne’s World or Beavis & Butthead, there was Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, two high school idiots who dream of becoming metal giants with their band, Wyld Stallyns (though neither have any musical talent). However, if they fail history, Ted will be shipped off to military school, ending the band. Worse yet, it turns out our very future depends on Bill and Ted staying together because their music will eventually change the world. So a visitor from the future arrives with a time machine to help them to ace their final history report.
In addition to the deceptively clever time travel story, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is an affectionately silly (though spot-on) spoof of suburban teen mallrat culture in the 80s. Though their stupidity is exaggerated, Bill and Ted are perfectly realized by Alex Winter & Keanu Reeves, the latter of whom would spend years trying to shed his airhead image.
Unlike Wayne’s World, a SNL sketch padded to 90 minutes and played by guys in their thirties, Winter and Reeves are completely convincing teenagers. Those raised in that era probably knew classmates not-too-far-removed from these guys.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is definitely a product of its time, from the wardrobe, the dialogue, right down to the radio-friendly songs featured throughout the soundtrack (which die hard headbangers could argue isn’t metal at all). Still, the film had a significant cultural impact at the time and made Keanu Reeves a household name.
In addition to making “dude” part of our modern vernacular, the film is also arguably the first to present teenage heavy metal fanatics as charming and likeable (though still pretty stupid, never quite appreciating the ominous power of a time machine at their disposal). Most importantly, despite how dated it is, the film is still pretty damned funny.