Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey
2006Director: Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen, and Jessica Joy Wise
Cast: Alice Cooper, Bruce Dickinson, Ronnie James Dio, Slipknot
eavy metal usually appears in the popular media in conjunction with crime. If it comes to light that a killer listened to metal, the press seizes upon it; handwringing about "what are our children listening to" typically follows. Sam Dunn has loved metal since childhood, and he's unapologetic about it. The 30 year-old anthropologist wrote his graduate thesis on "the plight of Guatemalan refugees," but several years ago turned his attention to another culture: metalheads. The fact that he also uses the word "plight" here is telling. Metal: A Headbanger's Journey is a documentary, but it's not meant to be objective. The film is a defense of metal culture using Dunn's anthropological credentials. Dunn ostensibly tries to find out "why heavy metal has been consistently stereotyped, dismissed, and condemned," which isn't a tough question. It takes all of maybe 10 seconds for the film to provide an answer (hint: Heavy Metal Parking Lot). But for the rest of the film, Dunn succeeds in showing why the question matters.
Dunn's anthropological approach isn't rigorous, or at least doesn't feel that way. He divides the film into sections: Sound, Roots, Environments, Gender and Sexuality, Death and Violence, and so on. This is about as anthropological as the film gets. The sections are illustrative, not analytical, and the documentary has the air of a PBS special, if not for the subject matter. The Roots section, for example, traces metal back to blues and classical music. The Environments section shows that metal springs from cold, blue-collar places. The conclusions that Dunn draws (he appears both as himself and in voiceover) are simplistic: heavy metal is a culture; the culture brings misfits together; the music makes people feel empowered. The film is weakest when Dunn plays anthropologist, and is strongest when he lets his subjects speak for themselves. Dunn enlists some "expert" talking heads, but their contribution is minimal. This is partially because the film identifies them only by name and title without explaining why their opinion matters. Thus, Deena Weinstein comes across merely as an older woman who's surprisingly hip to metal; the average viewer wouldn't know that her sociological studies of metal laid the groundwork for a film like this.
The lack of academic rigor doesn't hurt the film, though, and prevents it from being dry. The bulk of the film is Dunn's interviews with musicians, who seem to let their guard down at the fact their interviewer is a fellow metalhead. The film explodes the stereotype of the knuckle-dragging longhair; Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi is elegantly soft-spoken, while Cannibal Corpse's Alex Webster is articulate and musically literate. Slipknot might seem like a bunch of loonies in masks, but when they talk about their dead-end childhoods in Iowa, one better understands their mass youth appeal. Twisted Sister's Dee Snider is the greatest surprise here. He turns out to be not only articulate but also sharply cognizant of metal's cultural issues, such as censorship and homosexuality. The discussions of gender, sexuality, and religion are the film's highlights. Pamela Des Barres, renowned groupie and author of I'm with the Band, makes the case that female groupies are not exploited; rather, their actions are their choice. Black metallers Mayhem and Gorgoroth hold nothing back, the former reveling in church burning and the latter chillingly vowing to fight "Christianity and its Semitic roots." Even though this is a film defending metal, the black metal section is the only time that Dunn distances himself from his subjects.
While the film is called A Headbanger's Journey, it's not really one. There's a brief treatment of Dunn's life, but the film isn't a journey so much as a series of vignettes. Deeper exploration would have been nice; it's admirable that Dunn keeps things moving, but some sections feel glossed over. The film has a few technical hiccups, too. Lamb of God's Randy Blythe and Mark Morton are misidentified as each other. At least once, a talking head isn't identified until a second onscreen appearance. Occasionally, Dunn provides a chart showing metal's genealogy. While the chart is fairly thorough (is Pantera really "thrash"?), the camera pans across it too quickly and the text is too small to be helpful, especially given metal bands' unreadable logos. But these are small niggles in the larger picture. Despite its anthropological trappings, this film doesn't try to be anything more than a fan's portrayal of metal. Dunn's goofy, earnest personality is winning; when he interviews Ronnie James Dio and Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, one can't help but cheer for the metalhead who finally gets to meet his idols. In this film, metalheads will finally see a positive media portrayal of themselves. More importantly, non-metalheads will recognize metal as a multi-faceted phenomenon. And if they don't, Dunn doesn't care. As the film closes with footage of the 40,000-strong Wacken Open Air festival, Dunn says of metal's naysayers: "We're doing just fine without you."