5. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is a now-infamous documentary released at the pinnacle of the genre’s popularity, and has become more than a simple document of metal culture at the time. Because it’s so-narrowly focused on the LA ‘hair metal’ scene, it ceases to be an accurate depiction of the genre at all, which may disappoint some longtime headbangers. One could even argue Decline II ultimately isn’t about the music at all, but a particular moment in time that its subjects naively assume will last forever. The film could have just-as-easily been made in the 50s, when equally-untalented actors migrated to Hollywood in hopes of being discovered.
Decline II features several interviews with established stars, as well as young hopefuls still playing the clubs on LA’s Sunset Strip (nearly all of whom are 100% convinced they’re going ‘make it’). A few of the metal superstars are insightful and intelligent, while others end up sounding arrogant, vain and shallow.
The most famous scene involves W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes, whose drunken, self-destructive rants between guzzling bottles of vodka is painful to watch (though his mother is forced to). Their attitudes have trickled downhill, evidenced when we see embarrassing segments of local bands behaving like they’re already rock stars. Some of the delusional, naive and sexist remarks flying from their mouths reek of calculated attempts to pander to a fan base they haven’t yet earned. What’s both hilarious and sad is we’re certain these guys think this is how they’re expected to act.
There’s a train-wreck quality to the film which makes it morbidly fascinating (occasionally hilarious), and director Penelope Spheeris’ timing was perfect. Because Decline II was released near the end of the decade, it’s often-cited as one of the nails in the 80s metal coffin (along with rap, Beavis & Butthead & Nirvana), ‘exposing’ viewers to it’s shallowness and sexism. Whether or not that assessment is valid is obviously subjective, but one thing becomes immediately obvious: metal, in its state at the time, needed an overhaul.
4. Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986)
Unlike other genres, attending a heavy metal concert has always been a ritualistic affair for its more hardcore fans. It’s not enough to simply show up and enjoy the show; there is a dress code. At the very least, wearing a concert tee-shirt of a similar band establishes your credibility, separating you from the mere posers. In the 80s, the truly dedicated included such gear as bullet belts, studded collars & wristbands, denim vests covered in band patches and – if you were really brave – spandex.
Then there was the pre-show tradition of arriving at the arena parking lot early in order socialize with your brethren and – most importantly – get as wasted as possible before they physically searched you at the gate. Heavy Metal Parking Lot is a now-legendary 17 minute documentary from 1986, featuring numerous metal maniacs engaging in this ritual before a Judas Priest concert. Most are in various stages of inebriation, some garbed more ridiculously than others, the most obvious highlight being the kid in zebra-striped spandex, who grabs the microphone, slurring his words while declaring Madonna a dick and all punk rock belongs on Mars.
Cult filmmaker John Waters said at-the-time this film gave him the creeps, and one can understand why. Heavy Metal Parking Lot presents its subjects as brain-dead, clueless morons, without any obvious manipulation from the filmmakers. Back then, the film undoubtedly added fuel to the fire for those who feared heavy metal’s negative influence, while providing outsiders some healthy belly laughs.
Watching it today is like unearthing a time capsule. Despite all the underage drinking, garish clothes and big hair, Heavy Metal Parking Lot is a snapshot of a more innocent time, when suburban kids felt the need to rebel, even though they really had nothing to rebel against. This film is as representative of the 1980s as The Breakfast Club, and marvelously entertaining.
3. Metallica Through the Never (2013)
In an era when homogenized pop tarts and egocentric rappers dominate what’s left of the music business, Metallica soldiers on. Even after three decades, they remain one of the biggest bands in the world (metal or otherwise), long after their contemporaries have faded into relative obscurity. The band’s massive success has provided them the luxury of indulging in artistic endeavors most similar artists can’t afford to do on their own, such as release a full-blown, big-budget theatrical concert film…in 3-D, no less.
Unlike recent 3-D films featuring One Direction or Katy Perry, cynically produced to drain teenage girls of their allowance, Metallica Through the Never is far more ambitious. Drawing inspiration from Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same and its bizarre ‘fantasy‘ sequences, the film threads an actual plot among the concert footage, that of a teenage roadie, Trip (Dane Dehaan), who’s charged with retrieving a package of great importance to the band. His journey is surreal, violent and ambiguous, to say the least, though the package is simply a MacGuffin on which to hang several bizarre action sequences.
Like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, numerous theories about its contents have been offered by fans, the most intriguing being that the package contains the soul of original bassist Cliff Burton (killed in a tour bus accident in 1986), which is why Metallica ends the film by performing Burton’s “Orion” after Trip has returned with the package.
Still, despite the efforts at surrealism, it’s the concert footage itself that is truly stunning. Stalking an elaborate stage created specifically for the film, Metallica present a mind-blowing visual and audio experience, making Kiss look like a bunch of grunge-era navel-gazers. Unlike The Song Remains the Same, ultimately rendered dull by indifferent direction and bland cinematography, Through the Never is a completely immersive experience, further enhanced by 3-D (one of the few films since Avatar to justify its use). Not only are we given the best seats in the house, we’re just-as-often right there on stage with the band members themselves.
Metallica Through the Never wasn’t particularly successful at the box office, which is a shame since it’s one of the few concert films since the 1970s which is best experienced on the big screen. As far as the genre is concerned, this is easily the best heavy metal concert film of all time, even without the intrusive ‘plot.’
2. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
What can be said about This is Spinal Tap that hasn’t already been discussed a thousand times by critics and film historians around the world?
This was the first ‘mockumentary’ which, even today, looks and feels completely authentic, from the interviews, the archive footage, right down to the concert scenes. As satire, there is never a Brooksian nudge-and-a-wink, no over-the-top comedy moments which break the consistent documentary feel, and certainly seldom a time when we think Spinal Tap isn’t anything but a real band. In fact, some who attended its premiere questioned why director Rob Reiner would bother documenting a disastrous tour by a bunch of has-beens.
But these elements are the key to why This is Spinal Tap works so well. Even 30 years later, Tap’s music and lyrics aren’t too far removed from real bands who take themselves seriously, and the largely improvised dialogue simply adds to the authenticity, especially band members’ attempts at philosophizing about their profession. In addition, Tap members Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer (along with Reiner) actually wrote and performed all of these songs (both live and in the studio).
While unsuccessful during its theatrical run, This is Spinal Tap has gained a massive cult following due to its infinitely-quotable dialogue (“These go to 11”), skewering rock’s penchant for self-indulgence and, most notably, testimony over the years by literally dozens of metal legends all eager to share their own “Spinal Tap moment.”
Still, as timeless and accurate as it may be, This is Spinal Tap does tend to present metal artists as clueless narcissists. In many ways it’s the perfect satire, but the film’s subtle contempt for the genre is what keeps it from being the greatest heavy metal movie of all time, a title which belongs to…
1. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005)
Though heavy metal has been around for over forty years, including a decade when it was the most popular genre in the world, it has mostly been regarded with distain and amusement by high-brow critics and those who don’t understand its appeal. Even the few metal documentaries produced at the height of its influence (such as the aforementioned Decline of Western Civilization II and Heavy Metal Parking Lot) appear to share a similar contempt for the music and tended to focus on the more clownish aspects of the genre.
But filmmaker Sam Dunn, an anthropologist and life-long metal fan, was arguably the first to truly explore the music itself with the depth, admiration and respect it arguably deserves. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey delves deep into metal’s history and origins, featuring insightful interviews with some of the genre’s most influential figures, all of whom set aside their ‘rock star’ status to discuss the music’s impact on popular culture. Even if not necessarily a heavy metal fan, one cannot help but develop an appreciation for the extreme level of musicianship and dedication required to play such music.
Not only does this film break metal down into various sub-genres, it doesn’t shy away from its more controversial aspects, including sexism, violence and often lurid lyrical subject matter. Perhaps most sensationally, Dunn interviews several figures of the Norwegian Black Metal movement, a genre in which some key members were linked to church burnings. Whether or not these actions were sincere or attempts at gaining publicity are wisely left for the viewer to decide.
At the very least, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey presents this music as a legitimate and culturally-important genre, not to be simply dismissed as a bunch of neanderthals armed with guitars and audacity. It is arguably the best significant document of the history and cultural impact of heavy metal, a genre so many in the mainstream profess to hate.
Author Bio: D.M. Anderson lives, works and writes in Portland, Oregon. A lifelong film fanatic, he has written articles for WhatCulture.com, MoviePilot and is contributing to an upcoming book about animal attack movies. His blog, Free Kittens Movie Guide, chronicles his ongoing adventures of life in the dark.