Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey – TLF Heavy Metal Theater

For some reason, heavy metal – the music, the musicians, the fan culture – has inspired a lot of great documentary films. One day I wrote them all down in a list and decided to see all them and review them here for TLF? Why? Because it amuses me, but also because I think most of them are worth watching. Here’s the first, Sam Dunn’s Metal: a Headbanger’s Journey (2005) Dunn later went on to become something of the heavy metal Ken Burns, with 2007s Global Metal and the VH1 series Metal Evolution. – Keidra

Sam Dunn, a lifelong metalhead and anthropologist by training, wanted to explore the musical and cultural roots of heavy metal, while also investigating why the genre has traditionally been so derided by music critics and in broader pop culture. He travels the globe, talking to fans and musicians alike, including big name musicians like Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, Ronnie James Dio and Tom Araya from Slayer. The film clearly a labor of love, and a personal story, one that most metalheads will likely find some sort of connection too. The film was released in 2005, and I was interested to see if this film would stand the test of time.

At the time the film came out, it was one of the few media that actually took metal seriously from a cultural studies standpoint (with the notable exception of Deena Weinstein’s book “Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology.”) In an age of Decibel magazine and music blogs doing some pretty sophisticated writing and reporting about heavy music, some of the movie seems a big introductory, compared to what’s out currently out there. I think there was a point where the dialogue about heavy music was external, centered around issues of censorship and its (unfair and inaccurate) correlation to violent behavior. But since metal has faded from the mainstream to become underground music again, and the media has become much more niche-focued, in the age of metal blogs and social media much of that conversation has become insular, with the metal fan community interrogating itself in many ways, whether its the age old issue of what defines “true metal” or more sophisticated cultural issues: gender, race, etc.

That’s not to take anything away from Dunn’s work, the film is at its best when looking at metal as a musical history. Dunn’s metal geneaology chart, featured early in the film, is still the best attempts I’ve to categorize metal’s many subgenres, even if I disagree with some of it. And the section of the film that deconstructs the music roots of metal (classical and blues) is informative without getting to music geeky.

The section of the film the deals with gender and sexuality was lacking in some insight, the fact that the first female subject prominently featured in the section was not a musician (members of Kittie, Doro Pesch and Angela Gossow were among the musicians interviewed) or a fan but professional groupie Pamela DesBarres, said a lot without having to say anything. And no other (out) LGBT fans or musicians were featured outside of a brief mention of Rob Halford. I understand that Dunn was put in a precarious position here, not mentioning gender at all would have been the elephant in the room and he would have gotten flak for it, but the attempt at any analysis was so narrowly focused and rudimentary (there’s sexism in metal! some women are groupies but there are fans too! Rob Halford is openly gay!) part of me wonders if he should have bothered. II think it’s worth noting that race and ethnicity isn’t brought up in the film at all. I don’t know if it’s addressed in the film’s sequel, Global Metal, I’ll find out when I review it for the blog)

The latter half of the film deals with metal’s violent (and sometimes satanic) reputation, often seen through the lens of Norwegian black metal. Once again, here’s where Dunn’s film doesn’t quite age well. A later film, Until The Night Takes Us, explores black metal in a far more sophisticated way, exploring the genre’s connection to paganism and nationalism while still focusing the story around the personalities of the musicians and their music they play. (I’ll review that later) The film does delve deep into the mid-80’s PMRC controversy with a pre-White House Tipper Gore, and while the issue seems like ancient history now, for much younger metal fans, this bit of information is likely to be enlightening.

In general, Metal: a Headbanger’s Journey is definitely worth watching for metal fans and music fans in general, though many metal heads (particularly younger ones) may prefer Dunn’s later work or some of the more recent sub-genre specific metal documentaries I’ll be reviewing later, it’s definitely an enjoyable and loving tribute to the music and the fans. – B+

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