(2019) Music Documentary (Cinema Tropical) Diony Arce, Hansel Arrocha Sala, Eduardo Longa, Ivan Vera Munoz, Yamil Arias, Alberto Munoz, Dario Arce. Directed by Nicholas Brennan
When thinking about where great heavy metal originates, the first place that would come to most people’s mind would not be Cuba. Yet Zeus, an iconic band in their home country, has been (head) banging away for thirty years in an atmosphere not always favorable to rockers. Early in their career, the band was often hassled by police and frontman Diony Arce spent six years in jail for unspecified violations. Rock and roll was considered a capitalist tool and was effectively illegal in Cuba.
Filmmaker Nicholas Brennan spent ten years in Cuba documenting the band as they are affected by the tides of political trends; eventually the Cuban government relented and allowed the band to play at a Havana venue called Maxim Rock once a month; for their 25th anniversary the group was even allowed to tour the island (which makes up the bulk of material in the documentary.
The band members are individually interviewed with Diony coming off as introspective and a little less egotistical than his American counterparts. Lead guitarist Hansel Arrocha Sala is the musical force in the band and his dedication to his music is obvious. Drummer Eduardo Longa is candid about his love for drumming, but also about his drug and alcohol problems (apparently that is a rock and roll universal). Guitarist Ivan Vera Munoz is the young buck, happy to be a part of the band and bassist Yamil Arias rounds out the band.
It is notable that the band comes off looking and sounding like their counterparts anywhere else in the world. While Zeus does sing obliquely about political topics, they have to tread a very careful line lest the hard-fought government approval they enjoyed suddenly dry up; Diony speaks of the band having to essentially reflect Cuban revolutionary ideals in order to exist, even though the band often protests what they see are deficiencies in the Cuban government.
The tides of political change do effect the band; the death of Fidel leads to the relaxing of restrictions, allowing the band to play “officially” in Havana and occasionally outside of the capital. It even allows them to embark on the anniversary tour. Obama’s movement to normalize relations with Cuba further improves things for the band, although Trump’s reversal of that policy leads to a more restrictive policy towards American musical idioms. Currently in favor is the reggaeton form which the band members individually detest; additionally, rock bands are often assaulted by reggaeton fans who look with equal disdain on rock music.
When the Maxim Rock venue suffers roof damage, Zeus is left without a place to play and go more than a year without performing. This creates a good deal of despair within the band, who begin to question their future. Diony says flat out “the (government) made a fool of me,” referring to the years that the band compromised their message in order to be allowed to play.
However, the very short (73 minutes) documentary ends on a hopeful note and that should leave the audience exiting the theater on a bit of a high. I’m not a particular metal fan but their music sounds pretty strong. In a lot of ways, they are very much like a metal band anywhere else in the world; mugging for the camera, banging their heads in time to the music, enjoying the human demolition derby of the mosh pit, but they are unmistakably Cubano.
There is some lovely cinematography and some of the landscapes of the hinterlands as well as the urban cityscapes of Havana do show off the uniqueness of the country; one sees the Colonial-style architecture of Havana with the classic cars rolling around and one can only say “Ah, Cuba!” The film isn’t particularly hagiographic towards the government of Cuba but they aren’t necessarily hostile to it either. I would have liked a little more context in the movie; although we are told that Zeus is iconic and essentially the godfathers of the Cuban metal scene, we never get an idea of how extensive the scene is. We also don’t get much of an idea of how their music is recorded and distributed. One wonders if it can be downloaded here.
The movie was going to be screened this very evening at the Miami Film Festival but sadly coronavirus fears have led to the remainder of the Festival being canceled. Hopefully the film will be screened in some way in Miami; there will likely be a fairly strong audience there for it.
The tittle translates roughly to “The Last Freaks” and it doesn’t quite convey what the term Freaks means in Cuban culture; it generally refers to long-haired rockers and is not quite affectionate; think how the term “Hippies” makes you react and you’ll have the general idea. Rock and roll was never a respected form of music in Cuba and it is on the decline there as we speak. Still, the movie is a fascinating look at Cuba which in many ways remains as mysterious to us Americans as Antarctica is. Maybe it’s time that changed.
REASONS TO SEE: Manages to make Zeus look like a typical heavy metal band while not shying away from their differences in circumstance. Some very nice cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little sparse on context.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originated as a short film, Hard Rock Havana, which Brennan turned into a feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Anvil! The Story of Anvil
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: White Lies