Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos


Surf’s up.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Lars Ulrich, Ice-T, Robert DeLeo, Jerry Cantrell, Dexter Holland, Duff McKagan, John Kasich, Drew Pinsky, Tom Morello, Taylor Momsen, Rob Zombie, Dorothy Martin, Gavin Rossdale, Ed Kowalcyk, Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman, Matt Pinfield, Machine Gun Kelly, Lzzy Hale, Jason Flom, Seyth Boardman, Allison Hagendorf. Directed by Jonathan McHugh

 

Heavy metal has always gotten, if you’ll excuse the expression, a bad rap among musical genres. Often the music is dismissed as self-indulgent guitar noodling with satanic lyrics, its fans as Beavis and Butthead clones. That’s neither accurate nor fair.

Metal fans have always been amongst music’s most passionate. There is a kind of tribalism that goes on with metal fans, from the tattoos of lyrics and logos to the tour t-shirts and festival followers. While there might be rivalries with different bands (Metallica and Megadeth come to mind right away), there is a camaraderie between metal fans regardless of their favorite band; they’re all in it together and even if your favorite band is Halestorm, you can still rock out to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Korn or Body Count.

This is a documentary that suffers from the desire to do too much. McHugh starts as a way for fans to discuss what about the music appeals to them, why they love the bands they do and some of this is the most interesting material in the film, like the midwestern Mom whose kids can’t stand the music she listens to (it’s too loud) and takes one weekend off a year to attend a music festival to blow off steam and re-connect with friends and fellow metalheads.

But McHugh goes off in several other directions without any sort of plan or organization, going from the communal nature of the fans to the fine art of crowd surfing, to the casualties of the rock and roll lifestyle, to the lack of mainstream appeal of the music. The film leads off with Gene Simmons’ quote that Rock and Roll is Dead and rap has taken its place. That may well be statistically accurate, but it fails to take into account the cyclical nature of music which Simmons himself should have an understanding of since he and his band (KISS) have seen metal fall out of favor, come back in the late 80s/early 90s, and then fade away again. Sure, rap and hip hop may well be in the driver’s seat now but so was disco in the 70s; at some point kids will find something else to listen to. They always do.

There’s enough material here for McHugh to have done a miniseries on the subject, but instead he tried to cram it all into an hour and a half. That was probably not a good idea; most of the individual topics he takes off could easily use a movie of their own – the growing acceptance of women and African-Americans in the genre, the soul-grinding nature of touring and the toll it takes on family life, the healing nature of music, the relationship between fans and bands and those I mentioned previously, to name a few.

Much of the footage takes place at large-scale festival shows with tens of thousands in attendance (and often more) which might be painful for those who miss those gatherings which are probably at least another year or two away from happening again as of this writing. The effect of the pandemic on the fans and the musicians is never explored, but something tells me that this was filmed long before that. Some follow-up footage might have been nice. There also seems to be an emphasis on bands of the 80s and afterwards with curiously little mention to the hard rock pioneers of the 60s and 70s like KISS, Van Halen, Iron Butterfly, The Who, the Stones, and only a brief mention of Heart as pioneers for women in rock during that sequence. Context might have been a nice addition as well.

This is a worthy subject for a documentary and there is a definitely uplifting feeling to the film, despite a section on the passing of Chris Cornell and Chester Binnington of Soundgarden and Linkin Park, respectively. I think with a little better editing an maybe a little less scattershot approach, this could have been a lot more kickass than it was.

As a rock critic back in the day, I covered a number of the bands that are portrayed here. I have to say that the metal fans were some of the most inclusive of any I’ve ever dealt with as a rock critic. Although I tended to be more drawn to alternative music personally, I looked forward to metal shows not just because I liked the fans, but also because the women tended to be the sexiest – I was a single guy at the time, after all.

REASONS TO SEE: Gets an “A” for enthusiasm.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really organize its subjects well.
FAMILY VALUES: There are drug references and profanity herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Halestorm, who is profiled in the film, recorded a cover of The Who’s “Long Live Rock” to promote the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI, Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Lava

Kill Your Friends


Alone in a crowd.

Alone in a crowd.

(2015) Comedy (Well Go USA) Nicholas Hoult, James Corden, Georgia King, Craig Roberts, Jim Piddock, Joseph Mawle, Dustin Demri-Burns, Damien Molony, Bronson Webb, Emma Smith, Rosanna Hoult, Ed Skrein, Tom Riley, Edward Hogg, Kurt Egyiawan, Hugh Skinner, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alex Gillison, Ieva Andrejevaite, Osy Ikhile, David Avery, Alannah Olivia. Directed by Owen Harris

Music is a highly personal thing. It can define you, it can color your world, it can take you back to good memories in an instant. It can also make a lot of money for someone.

In the 1990s, it was the era of Cool Brittania, when music from the UK ruled the airwaves. Blur, Oasis and Radiohead were at the top of the charts and even lesser-known bands had their moments in the sun. That was a really good time to be a record company A&R man in Britain.

Steve Stelfox (Hoult) has that very job, and judging from the tabloids it’s all drugs, sex and concerts and that’s pretty much true, but he actually has to sign some bands and those bands actually have to make some money for the label. His good friend Roger (Corden) wants to sign bands that matter, but Steve thinks that’s silly – except that the head of A&R for the label has essentially had a breakdown and the open job is likely Roger’s because he’s been there the longest – and Steve wants that job.

So Steve takes drastic steps to ensure that he has the longest tenure but a curveball is thrown his way when Parker Hall (Riley) is hired; and Hall is bringing with him a highly coveted indie band, the Lazies, in with him. Steve has in turn signed the Songbirds, a Spice Girls-wannabe act who are temperamental and damn near impossible to work with and look to be a dead end for the label.

Steve is aided by his secretary Rebecca (King) who is blackmailing him for a promotion and there is a detective (Hogg)  investigating what happened to Roger, who after interrogating Steve slips him a demo because, you know, he always wanted to be a singer-songwriter. Steve is clever and Steve is ruthless and Steve doesn’t really have much of a conscience; perfect qualifications for the music industry.

Screenwriter John Niven adapted the material from his own novel, and he certainly has some background in the subject – he was actually an A&R guy during the period the novel takes place in. So you figure that some of the goings on had some basis in fact, particularly the back-biting and hustling. That lends an air of authenticity which differentiates this from other films set within the music industry, in which plucky young songwriters who have something to say end up getting a contract. The cynicism here is well-earned.

Hoult is perfectly cast as Stelfox, operating with a furrowed WTF brow alternating with an eye-rolling sneer. The character has been compared to Patrick Bateman in American Psycho but I think that’s a bit of an easy cop-out; Stelfox may be amoral and cynical but he’s not psychotic; he simply has no ethics whatsoever. There’s a very important difference there.

He does the voiceover narration as well, and it’s pretty damn funny. In fact, a lot of the material here is funny to the point I was laughing out loud – possibly because I have an insider’s perspective to the music industry (I was a rock critic for more than a decade) but also because it’s just so damn mean. If you’re in the right mood for this kind of stuff (and I clearly was) there’s a gold mine of laughs here.

I wanted to call attention to the soundtrack. It has a lot of period-accurate and place-accurate music that will instantly bring you back to the era. It’s not all hits either; some of the songs you’ll here were essentially album tracks, but they were not the filler – they were the tracks that could have been singles. There is also some original music and the score is by Junkie XL, who is rapidly becoming one of the best there is.

The movie was a touch too long and there will be plenty who will find it too dark. I will definitely give the caveat that this isn’t the movie for everyone and there are some who won’t take well to the cynical tone. However, as far as it goes, I think the movie accomplishes what it set out to and in fact exceeded my expectations. This is going to be one of those movies you’ve probably never heard of but when you find it on Netflix or some other streaming service you’ll be delighted that you did.

REASONS TO GO: A really great soundtrack. Black comedy that’s laugh-out-loud funny. Nicholas Hoult is spot on in his performance.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too long and maybe too cynical for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a ton of drug use, as well as some nudity, plenty of violence and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s protagonist is partly inspired by A&R legend Don Simpson.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VOD, Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: High Fidelity
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: London Has Fallen

I Am Thor


It's good to be Thor.

It’s good to be Thor.

(2015) Music Documentary (Blue Lame 61) Jon Mikl Thor, Mike Favata, Steve Price, Rusty Hamilton, Jack Cionne, Katherine Elo, Stuart Morales, Thundergeek, D. Stevens, Steve Zazzi, Frank Soda, Nik Turner, Jack Holmstrom, Ed Prescott, Bruce Duff, Mark Weiss, Al Higbee, Mike Muzziani, Don Hill, Frank Meyer, Ben Perman, Ani Kyd, Linda Dawe. Directed by Ryan Wise

Florida Film Festival 2015

Some of our rock gods live in palaces, Taj Mahal-like and florid. They are truly Gods among men, regal and unlike us mortals in every way. We aspire to their greatness for they are great indeed, touching millions of lives in different ways. Then again, some of our rock gods live in trailer parks. They scrape and struggle to get by, trying to bring their music to the masses and somehow, failing. It isn’t always because their music isn’t up to snuff; sometimes it’s bad decisions or just plain bad luck.

Jon Mikl Thor is one such rock god. In the 1970s, he took up bodybuilding and as a baby-faced blonde youth, he showed some promise. What he really wanted to do was entertain however, and so he went to Las Vegas where he starred as a nude waiter in a Vegas revue – until someone with a bigger package took his spot.

So Jon picked himself up, dusted himself off, went back home to his native Canada and put together a band. I mean, doesn’t everybody? The strange thing was, this band had talent. They had potential. They had a contract with RCA in Canada. The band called itself Thor, after Jon’s onstage persona. And on the eve of their debut album release, a dispute erupted between the record label and the band’s management company. And in the middle of all this, Jon disappeared. Indeed, he was kidnapped – or at least he says he was and while perhaps you might be skeptical as you see him discussing this early on in the documentary, as the film wears on you come to believe that Jon Mikl Thor is a lot of things but he isn’t a liar.

This incident alone could have sustained a documentary but Wise, who followed the band for 15 years, instead focuses on the band’s attempts to break out into mainstream prominence. In many ways, it’s a heartbreaking portrait of a man on a mission who at every turn sees his mission prevented. And the hell of it is, Thor is actually a pretty damn good band. They actually deserve to have some fame, and yet it eludes them. That doesn’t mean that Jon and his bandmates have given up on the dream, or more importantly on themselves.

Now on the over side of 60, Jon continues to chase the rainbow of success. He keeps up a cheerful and optimistic attitude, perhaps to the point where he might be considered delusional. I have to admit that at first, I thought he had a problem distinguishing reality with desire, but the more I got into the movie, I began to realize that he still believes in the dream and knows full well the uphill battle he’s fighting. He also understands the inherent ridiculousness of a man putting on fake armor and battling fake monsters onstage.

Indeed, Thor is an engaging and charismatic guy. Not only does he have plenty of onstage presence, enough to grab the attention of a gigantic rock festival crowd, he also is humble and likable offstage (which is his Canadian heritage showing, eh?) which helps make this a fascinating view. I had no problem spending an hour and a half with Jon Mikl Thor and wouldn’t have minded hanging out with him for a much longer time.

Thor’s live show is, even by metal standards, something to behold. Many of Thor’s bodybuilding feats are displayed, from blowing up a hot water bottle through his own lung power until it explodes, to bending steel bars to having concrete blocks broken on his chest. Thor is an impressive entertainer and he is canny enough to surround himself with some superb musicians, particularly Price and Favata.

I have to admit that while I like heavy metal and listen to it from time to time, I’m not much of a fan and while I was semi-aware of who Thor is, I didn’t really expect much from this documentary. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised that this is not only entertaining but poignant. You end up rooting for a man who seems to be a genuinely nice guy who’s had more than his share of bad  breaks. Against all odds, I became a fan which is a difficult achievement for any band these days given how many bands I’ve heard in my misspent days as a rock critic and since as a listener. So, rock on God of Thunder. Long live Thor!

REASONS TO GO: Thor is an engaging and charismatic personality. A look behind the trailer park of rock and roll.
REASONS TO STAY: Heavy metal isn’t for everyone.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During his bodybuilding days, Thor once finished as runner-up in a bodybuilding contest to Lou Ferrigno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paul Williams: Still Alive
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cartel Land