Saturday, July 20, 2019

10 Documentaries Every Metalhead Should Watch

There's no shortage of movies and documentaries circulating the web, but figuring out what's worth your time can be tricky. Never fear, your friend DoC is here to help you curate your next insomnia-fuelled binge.

Until The Light Takes Us

Unlike Lords of Chaos (both the movie and the sensationalist book it was based on), Until The Light Takes Us tells the story of "True Norwegian Black Metal" in the words of its most infamous proponents. In hindsight, black metal seemed destined to be split into two factions: Bands who simply wanted to strip their music down to its most basic elements, and those who saddled the genre with unnecessary baggage. It's a dynamic exposed by the differing paths and philosophies of Gylve Nagell (Darkthrone's Fenriz) and Kristian Vikernes (Burzum's onerous Count Grishnakh). The filmmakers spend too much time on inconsequential tangents (in particular, the whole section with Harmony Korine is both deeply irritating and unnecessary), but Until The Light Takes Us is an illuminating look at the personalities that shaped one of the most influential musical movements of the last 20 years.

Get Thrashed

Like the music it covers, what Get Thrashed lacks in professionalism it make up for in enthusiasm. Mixing vintage photographs and VHS footage with recent interviews, the documentary gives a fairly good (if well-tread) overview of the scene, starting with The Big Four (Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, and Metallica) and expanding to lesser known acts like Hirax and Overkill. If there's one quibble, it's that the film spends far too little time on German thrash - bands like Sodom and Kreator were equally as important as their American peers, and their influence in shaping death and black metal can be felt to this day. Hopefully someday another group of enterprising superfans with a DSLR camera will head over to the Rhine to correct the oversight.

Anvil: The Story of Anvil

The unlikely story of Toronto's Anvil - early thrashers who predated The Big Four, before being quickly outpaced by them (in both tempo and popularity) - seems too entertaining to be true. [Accusations that the film-makers were making a spoof in the vein of Rob Reiner's mockumentary Spinal Tap aren't helped by the band having a drummer named Robb Reiner. ] But as much as The Story of Anvil seems like a send up of heavy metal, it's a very real portrayal of a veteran band clinging to the lowest rungs of stardom.


If there's one thing I've learned from traversing the various underground music subcultures, it's this: Everybody loves Lemmy. The iconic Motörhead frontman's long history in rock starts with his time as a Jimi Hendrix roadie, leads to a stint in psychedelic warlords Hawkwind, and finishes with four decades of shaping punk rock and heavy metal with his "everything louder than everything else" philosophy. But the film shows a Lemmy that fans rarely saw: A voracious reader who toured with suitcases full of books, and an absent father who reconnected with his son as an adult (and occasionally swapped groupies with him...ugh). Lemmy is a humanizing portrayal of one of heavy music's true icons - a lifer who never aspired to do anything other than what he did, or be anything other than what he was.


A fairly obscure documentary from 2012, Hellbound? finds a new angle on metal's obsession with hell by exploring the history and development of the concept, embedding interviews shot at a Danish metal festival (Copenhell, natch) alongside talking head segments with historians and religious scholars. The filmmakers then use death metal to score a scene of an Evangelical "hell house", implicitly connecting the gory intentions of both. Deicide's Benton himself sums it up bluntly: "Religion is a business just like any other business."

Such Hawks, Such Hounds

Directed by the guitarists of the band Serpent Throne, this under-rated documentary from 2008 gathers some of the biggest names in American doom metal, stoner rock, and desert rock, providing an overview of the world of slow and heavy music. Interviews with members of Sleep, The Obsessed, Pentagram, and Kyuss, as well as producer Billy Anderson and artist Arik Roper, paint a picture of a movement united by a love of weed, vintage amps, and Black Sabbath. The documentary also provides the definitive story behind Sleep's Jerusalem/Dopesmoker, which had taken on mythic qualities since its recording.

Last Days Here

Last Days Here goes over the history of Pentagram, establishing their history as a seminal doom metal band with a knack for self sabotage while manager Sean Pelletier struggles to get frontman Bobby Liebling clean after decades of crack and heroin addiction. [Spoiler: It worked - a reunited Pentagram released their strongest album in years and became a regular touring act once again.] Sadly, Liebling seems unable to keep himself out of trouble; but Last Days Here remains an engaging film about hope and redemption.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years

Book-ended by two installments that focus on L.A.'s hardcore punk scene (the first one featuring a pre-Rollins Black Flag), the second part of Penelope Spheeris' rock doc triptych spends time with the hair metal scene at its Eighties peak. Spheeris tips her biases by juxtaposing the fame-hungry antics of the Sunset Strip bands against a sombre interview with Megadeth's Dave Mustaine. The time spent with clueless rockers paid off a few years later when Spheeris' directed Wayne's World.

Paradise Lost/West of Memphis

Paradise Lost is a troubling watch: Three young children were found murdered in rural Arkansas, and due to circumstantial evidence and a coerced confession, three metal fans were convicted of the crime; their guilt was seemingly predicated on their status as outsiders. It was a film that resonated so much with metalheads that Metallica allowed their music to be used in the film - a rare occurrence at the time. [They would later work with the filmmakers in another divisive documentary, Some Kind Of Monster.]

The Peter Jackson-produced West of Memphis picks up the story almost two decades later, revisiting the West Memphis Three after they had become causes célèbres for the ACLU, opponents of capital punishment, and Henry Rollins. The film draws on interview with forensic experts, legal experts, and residents of West Memphis, who argue convincingly that the WM3 were innocent. The movie ends on a positive note: The imprisoned trio were freed and reunited with their families. But their ordeal should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who grows their hair long and wears black in small, religious, conservative communities around the world.

Metal: A Headbanger's Journey

Say what you will about Sam Dunn, but when his film Metal: A Headbanger's Journey came out in 2005, it was a rarity: A documentary about underground music made by someone who grew up in that sub-culture. There are too many classic moments to list, but among the highlights: An irate (and very drunk) Necrobutcher went on a profanity laden tirade while his guitarist Blasphemer tried to hide his amusement; in one of his last filmed interviews, Ronnie James Dio articulated his views on religion while explaining what the hell "Holy Diver" is actually about; and of course, the movie gifted the world with that infamous scene of Gorgoroth frontman Gaahl drinking wine and hailing Satan, which became a meme before most people knew what the term meant.