It's been 15 years since I first saw this movie (as of the date of this update, Halloween 2003) at the age of 15 in October 1988 in a movie theater in Tyrone Mall in St. Petersburg, Florida (a.k.a. God's Waiting Room). I figure I represent the 1980s suburban metalhead experience as well as anyone, and eventually I would pretty much memorize my tape of the film (of the bowdlerized version shown on MTV, unfortunately). Now that I have access to the full version (courtesy of the Hillsborough County, Florida public library system) here goes a full overview.
At the time, Penelope Spheeris was known for a 1981 documentary about punk music which I really should see sometime, The Decline of Western Civilization, and some obscure punk-esque comedy movies. In 1987 or so, she decided to make a movie about her other favored music, heavy metal. She may not have known it, but this was an interesting period for heavy metal, which was splitting in different directions and going through other changes. In 1986, Bon Jovi, Poison, and Cinderella had all hit it big, much to the disgust of some heavy metal fans (and some outside the metal scene as well) who dismissed them as having gained their success on their glam image. Motley Crue and Ratt were already fairly successful in a similar image-oriented Metal Lite way, but some considered bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Quiet Riot, who didn't wear makeup or try to look pretty, to be the One True Way of Metal. An underground scene of even heavier and less image-oriented bands was also flourishing through tape trading -- this is where bands like Metallica got their start.
But by 1988, even the glammest hit bands were toning it down -- on the cover of their 1986 debut album, Poison wore so much makeup that my mom looked at the picture and said "Oh, how nice. An all-girl band." In this movie, shot about a year later, no one would make that mistake (even before you hear them speak). The bands also eased up on the hairspray; no longer were there people who looked like Chuck Klosterman's description (in his book Fargo Rock City) of Tom Keifer of Cinderella on the cover of their 1986 debut album: "I am nonetheless drawn to his head. It appears to be perfectly spherical; his hair is a uniform length, and it is standing at attention. It's like a lion's mane." This movie was filmed, as the opening credits announce, between August 1987 and February 1988, right in the middle of the transitional period. Guns'n'Roses turned down the chance to be in the movie, but the transition in Axl Rose's look between their first video, "Welcome to the Jungle", where Axl's hair is teased to high heaven, and their second, "Sweet Child O' Mine, where it is completely flat and held down by a bandana, shows how the favored look was changing for the savvy bands. Not all the people in this film are so savvy about leading the trend, though - a viewer who wasn't around or didn't follow metal during the 1980s will probably find it astounding that anyone would choose to look like some of these people. In retrospect, it doesn't surprise me that out of all the musicians in this film, the more successful bands over the next few years were those who were willing to look comparatively subdued.
Spheeris said in a later interview, "Well, first let me say you're talking to the person who turned down directing Spinal Tap because I love heavy metal music so much that I couldn't make fun of it...Miles Copeland from I.R.S. World Media gave me a couple of producers to do Decline II with, and they really looked down on the metal scene." With that kind of backing, it's not surprising that the film goes back and forth between supporting and mocking the metal musicians interviewed, but sometimes the headbangers made it too easy. Spheeris recounts, 'Well, everybody I filmed...I asked them, "How do you want me to film you?" I gave them a choice of how they wanted to be filmed. And so Gene Simmons goes, "I don't want to do anything tacky. How about a lingerie store?"' (His bandmate Paul Stanley is interviewed lying on a bed surrounded by lingerie models.) But though some of the rock bands capture the appeal of the wild rock'n'roll lifestyle, others seem to live in a more down-to-earth way.
The film opens with the aforementioned Gene Simmons of Kiss saying that half the magic of the music comes from the fans. Then Motorhead's "Cradle to the Grave" plays during the opening credits, while a metal audience outside a venue goes wild for the camera and then during the performance goes even wilder for the music. (This audience is not identified, but thinking about it, it looks like the one from the Megadeth show near the end of the film.) Then various fans, musicians, and a parole officer all offer their opinions of what heavy metal and headbangers are. (Paul Stanley of Kiss and Alice Cooper independently remark that heavy metal is the true rock'n'roll of the 1980s.) This is followed by an intercut selection of the various bands whose live shows are seen throughout the film reading the disclaimer to the audience that they may be filmed at this show. Most of them joke around with it.
The first performance is Lizzy Borden doing a workmanlike cover of "Born to Be Wild." It's a fun song, but mostly because it's familiar rather than because their version stands out in any way. This band is shown backstage pouring beer on one another, but their singer gets a stand-alone interview and looks a lot more of a quiet guy; the on- and off-stage contrast is interesting.
Poison chose to be interviewed sitting in front of their equipment, and as I said earlier, the real guys differ greatly from the stylized version of the first album cover photo that's painted on the equipment. They discuss their reasons for becoming a band and the technique of distributing their flyers that they and most other L.A. bands used to attract attention to themselves and their shows. Next we see unknown bands passing out their own flyers and discussing their day jobs (those who have them) and money problems of paying for printing the flyers and everyday living.
After showing the various unsigned musicians and how they look, the discussion goes to the glam look -- and most of these unknown bands are still very made-up and hairsprayed. "It's a way of life," one guy declares, and some girls declare that makeup on a man "brings out bisexual tendencies, 'cause women do like women." On the other hand, another woman (of an unknown band at the time of filming, but by the time this film was out on video, identifiable as Janet Gardner of Vixen, who were all over MTV with "Edge of a Broken Heart) declares that "if a guy came to pick me up for a baseball game and was wearing makeup, I probably wouldn't answer the door."
The next segment is on Faster Pussycat and the club opened by their lead singer, Taime Downe with his roommate Rikki Rachtman, the Cathouse. Both the band and Rikki seem to be interviewed in the club when it's not open; the band performs "Cathouse" and "Bathroom Wall." Faster Pussycat discuss such things as the economics of touring for a newly-signed band: "We get a thousand a show, and we probably do four shows a week. It costs us twenty-five hundred a week to be on the road." (The viewer is left to do the math and split the earnings among five band members.) Then one of Faster Pussycat's major influences, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, are interviewed in a sedate living room on the effect of drugs on their career ("we painted ourselves into a major corner") and bands who copy their style ("That's cool. We stole it from other bands.") Other bands also say they feel flattered to be imitated (with the exception of Alice Cooper, who standing amidst pieces of his stage show, hefts an oversized noose and says "I can think of a few of them I'd like to have right here.")
The next part explores Los Angeles, where the film was made, as a mecca for other metal musicians: Seduce are from Detroit. The band members are interviewed separately, each while driving cars, which one of them compares to the feel of performing. They play "Colleen" and "Crash Landing" at a club and discuss their ambitions -- one member says he'd like to be retired in ten years with his financial portfolio working for him, and that "I got long hair, but I'm a businessman."
A film with a female director can't ignore women, so the next segment looks into women in the heavy metal scene. The male musicians talk about groupies, telling interesting stories from their own lives and discoursing on why they wouldn't fall in love with groupies. The parole officer gives the outsider's view of women being treated brutally in metal, shown tied up, etc. Lemmy of Motorhead (standing outside on a bluff above L.A.) remarks that women aren't taken seriously in heavy metal but says he doesn't know why -- several female musicians offer their opinions, such as "nobody has proved that girls can really, really ROCK!" (Vixen are among these interviewees, though I don't think the albums they recorded really proved that either. Perhaps they were a better live band. However, they and Lita Ford did give the late-'80s metal scene some successful female musicians, as well as Joan Jett who isn't always considered metal.) The unknown male musicians talk about their tendency to live off of women: "It's kind of a rule that a girl doesn't get in the apartment unless she has a sack of groceries." Rikki Rocket (Poison) admits that this is essentially prostitution but the guys who are still in that situation say they don't see it that way.
London, despite having formed in 1979, are still in that position as of 1987; one of their members says that except for music, "I've never had a job! The girls have always been very generous!" and another admits, "Right now I don't have a steady home, no." This band is best known for having former members who went on to be in W.A.S.P., Cinderella, and Guns'n'Roses, and nothing in their performance makes you wonder why they didn't make it themselves. However, Nadir D'Priest's attempt to burn a Russian flag as an intro to the song "Russian Winter, " saying that this is "what happens if they come over here," reminds us in retrospect of the Cold War atmosphere in the 1980s.
From an obscure band to one of the biggest figures in heavy metal: the next interview is Ozzy Osbourne, scrambling eggs and frying bacon in a leopard-print bathrobe (Spheeris has admitted in interviews that it's someone else's kitchen, and the shot where he can't pour orange juice accurately into a glass was staged). He's a lot more coherent here than he usually is in The Osbournes, talking about Black Sabbath's career, finances, and the drugs that were their downfall. "Drugs, they were OK at the time, but then we outgrew them."
The parole officer lady, Darlyne Pettinicchio, now talks about Back in Control, an organization for parents to get their kids back under their thumbs, and their process of "de-metaling" the teens. We see teens being frisked by guys in "Security" vests, but there's no explanation so it may not even have anything to do with the organization. Pettinicchio explains the horned-hand metal/devil symbol in far more detail than anyone who ever flashed it seriously ever thought about ("and here we see three sixes, representing the six-six-six from the book of Revelation"); to me, she comes off as just as ridiculous as the worst of the bands.
Next, we go to Gazzarri's, a rock club which is having a dance contest for "Miss Gazzarri Dancer of the Year." Some of the judges are members of metal bands; they seem to be enjoying themselves, but when asked afterwards about the contest, Nadir D'Priest (London) says "It's stupid. It doesn't belong in rock'n'roll; get it away.") Some of the contestants seem reasonably normal, but both last year's winner and the two 18-year-old girlfriends of 60-something Bill Gazzarri, the club owner, come off as astoundingly airheaded. The contest is followed by the band Odin, who seem to be pets of Bill Gazzarri; he tries to introduce them but can't get the audience to chant their name, even with the help of Miss Gazzarri Dancer. Nonetheless, the band say in their interviews (out flyering, and later hanging out in a hot tub with some women) that they want to be bigger than Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, "not just another band." They come off pretty conceited, especially when they perform the uninteresting "Little Gypsy" and "12 O'Clock High," but frankly, when I was 15 you could have turned the sound off during their performance and I wouldn't have cared. I was too busy drooling over their really hot lead singer Randy O. and his assless pants. Quite a lot of other unknowns are then shown saying similar things: "I will be a rock star. I will be." Of course, the fact that of the bands shown in this bit, Vixen (and to a lesser degree, Tuff) did reach some success makes it seem a little less ridiculous -- and then the established stars are shown saying pretty much the same thing, that an essential factor in their success was wanting it so much. (Necessary, but obviously not sufficient.)
One of the more memorable interviews follows: Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. floats in a pool chair in what appears to be his leather stage garb, completely drunk, while his mother sits at poolside trying to keep a calm expression while her son pours vodka over his face. He doesn't say a lot about music, but he does call himself "a full-blown alcoholic" and "a piece of crap." He sort of attributes it to the rock'n'roll lifestyle, and several other musicians established and not, agree with him; Lemmy (Motorhead) says he gained a drinking problem because the band got a free bottle of liquor at every show, and Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) cites the reputation of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones as having been a role model for him. However, Gene Simmons (whose notorious indulgence is women, rather than substances) calls drug use "hurting yourself" and many of the fans say that the metal music is their drug. One unknown flat-out states, "You can't be a musician and a drug addict. You're either one or the other." The well-known bands then talk about the biggest audiences they've performed for and how performing the music is "better than sex, better than anything you could ever do," to quote Bobby Dall (Poison).
The last band shown are the only one whose name in the opening credits drew audience cheers when I first saw this in a theater: Megadeth. The band members talk in the recording studio and against plain backgrounds like the unknown bands, about how they don't care about their image and don't live the rock'n'roll lifestyle (and indeed, despite all having beautiful long hair, they are the least rock-star looking of any of the musicians in the movie except perhaps Lemmy). "Just a wall of Marshalls and your band, that's a show for me," Chuck Behler the drummer puts it. Their studio recording of "In My Darkest Hour" segues into their live version of it when the song gets to its faster section, and they certainly have the wildest audience of the film, with a mosh pit and stage divers (though to be completely fair, they are also the best-established band who are shown performing, having two albums before the one they are shown recording). A great choice to end the film with, showing the power of the music standing on its own.
However, short quotes from various musicians run along the end credits, giving us more hints to the personality of the stars saying them. Lemmy: "They will not stop rock'n'roll." Gene Simmons: "The Pope doesn't get laid. And I do." Steven Tyler: "Just be real careful. Wear a rubber and don't do drugs, what can I tell ya?"
The soundtrack album
does not feature all the songs performed in the film, much to my dismay, and some songs by bands who didn't appear serve as incidental music and are on the soundtrack.
- "Under My Wheels" -- Alice Cooper with Axl Rose, Slash and Izzy Stradlin (Guns'n'Roses)
- "The Bathroom Wall" -- Faster Pussycat
- "Cradle to the Grave" -- Motorhead
- "You Can Run But You Can't Hide" -- Armored Saint
- "Born to Be Wild" -- Lizzy Borden
- "In My Darkest Hour" -- Megadeth
- "The Prophecy" -- Queensryche
- "The Brave" -- Metal Church
- "Foaming at the Mouth" -- Rigor Mortis
- "Colleen" -- Seduce
viewing the movie (over and over), owning the soundtrack, and memories of being a 1980s metal fan.
Klosterman, Chuck. Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota. New York: Scribner, 2001.