I've been a film buff since childhood, and I love writing about and reviewing my favorites.
Rock These Heavy Metal Docs!
Those of you who regularly follow my column (all two of you) probably know by now that my twin passions are hard rock/heavy metal music and movies, so naturally, I love it when these two interests intersect.
The 21st century has seen a flood of documentary films dealing with hard rock and heavy metal, with new ones seeming to pop up all the time. Whether the film is an examination of the genre as a whole (see: Sam Dunn's Metal: A Headbanger's Journey), an investigation of a particular sub-genre (see: Until The Light Takes Us), or a profile of a significant band or musician (see: Lemmy, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, I Am Thor!, Death By Metal, or dozens of others), a good Metal documentary should be loaded with revealing interviews, intense live performance clips, and of course, lots of geeky headbanger trivia.
The list below is not intended to be a be-all, end-all list of the best metal documentaries, it's merely a run-down of ten of my personal favorites. There's enough of a variety here that any headbanger should be able to find at least one good flick to curl up with. So load up your DVD player, grab your remote, and let's rock!!
1. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
Penelope Spheeris' investigation of the late '80s Glam Metal scene on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip is not just an eye-opening portrait of one of the most over-the-top eras in modern music, it's also a treasure trove of unintentional comedy.
In between pithy commentaries from steel plated royalty like Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, Lemmy, and Alice Cooper, the film focuses on a host of lesser-known hair bands like London, Seduce, and Odin who were still hoping to "make it" in an already overcrowded music scene. Naturally, every single one of the unsigned musicians profiled in the film is totally, utterly convinced that they will succeed, despite the obvious signs that the Hair Metal scene had already reached critical mass.
Modern-day viewers will chuckle and wonder how many of these people are wearing paper hats and saying "Would you like fries with that, sir?" today.
Dave Mustaine and Megadeth, interviewed during the production of 1988's So Far...So Good...So What! album, come off as the most "together" and intelligent band in the entire film, which is ironic as hell because that particular lineup of Megadeth disintegrated within a year due to rampant drug abuse.
Decline II is perhaps best known for two scenes: the harrowing sequence where the drunk-as-a-skunk Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. floats in his swimming pool, pouring Vodka down his throat ("I drink...because... I'm not happy"), and the profile of legendary L.A. rock club owner Bill Gazzari, an elderly sleaze who sponsors a "Sexy Rock & Roll Dance Contest" at his namesake venue every week so he can drool over nubile "rock chicks" young enough to be his grandchildren.
In short, Decline II is a time capsule of everything that was wrong with the '80s metal scene all rolled up into one movie. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll cringe.
2. Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest (1991)
In 1985, Nevada teenagers Raymond Belknap and James Vance entered into a suicide pact after a night of drinking. Belknap died instantly of a self inflicted gunshot wound but a horribly disfigured Vance survived for three more years, later claiming that he and his friend had been "mesmerized" into committing suicide by a subliminal message hidden in the song "Better By You, Better Than Me" by their favorite band, Judas Priest.
Vance's family took the band to court in 1990 hoping to prove that there were, indeed, "subliminal messages" in their music (rumors of Satanic "backwards messaging" in heavy metal music had persisted for years) and that trial is the focus of this engrossing, yet depressing, documentary that was originally produced for PBS.
The very proper and polite members of Judas Priest appear blindsided by the lawsuit as they suddenly find themselves in the odd position of being a British band defending their American right to free speech.
Fortunately for the band and the Metal genre as a whole, the Vance family's case was eventually dismissed, but this case still continued to haunt the Priest for a number of years.
3. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)
In the early '80s, Sacha Gervasi was a teenage metal fan who befriended his then-favorite band, Anvil, and followed them around on their British tour. The Canadian band was on the rise at the time thanks to their now-classic Metal On Metal album (1982) and everyone seemed sure that Anvil were set to be "the next big thing."
A quarter-century later, Gervasi had grown up and become a successful Hollywood screenwrite,r but his friends in Anvil were still toiling in near-obscurity, working day jobs to pay the bills while chasing their rock n' roll dreams at night, playing in crappy bars for no money and no recognition.
Hoping to raise his old friends' profiles, Gervasi and a film crew followed the band on a disastrous, horribly mismanaged tour of Europe and observed the recording their thirteenth album (This Is Thirteen). I'll be honest, Anvil! often resembles a real-life This Is Spinal Tap (complete with a visit to Stonehenge and amps that go up to 11) but there are also moments of moving drama.
Viewers will be amazed at how Anvil singer Steve "Lips" Kudlow remains an optimistic, up-beat personality, despite being crapped on by the music industry for more than a quarter-century. Kudlow remains sure that good things are just around the corner for Anvil... and finally, it happened!
This film ended up turning into quite the Cinderella story for the band. As the movie racked up rave critical reviews and film-festival awards, an entirely new generation of fans discovered the long-lost band, who is now arguably more famous than they were in the 1980s.
4. Until The Light Takes Us (2009)
I've never really understood the whole "Black Metal" thing but Until the Light Takes Us was riveting, disturbing viewing nonetheless. This investigation of the wave of Black Metal hysteria that swept through Scandinavia in the early 90s - when a number of face-painted, bullet-belted Satan-worshiping misanthropes got caught up in trying to prove that their band was more "evil" than the next - resulted in a series of brutal murders, a number of church burnings and lots of anti-social, anti-Christian behavior.
Nearly all of the major players in the Norwegian Black Metal scene get some face time in this flick, including Fenriz of Darkthrone, members of Mayhem, Immortal, Satyricon, and Emperor, but the most notorious would be Varg Vikernes, aka "Count Grishnackh" of Burzum fame, who is interviewed from the Norwegian prison cell where he was serving a 21-year sentence for his roles in a number of arson fires and the murder of a former bandmate. (Yeah, he's an interesting fella.)
Lots of Norwegian news footage of Vikernes' arrest and trial is featured in the film, which looks like it must've been Norway's equivalent of the O.J. Simpson "trial of the century" media circus here in the U.S. Viewers who are unfamiliar with the events covered in Until the Light Takes Us will likely come away with the feeling that these Black Metal guys are from Mars and shouldn't be walking around loose with the rest of us. In short, Until the Light Takes Us is fascinating, unsettling stuff.
5. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)
Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Paradise Lost) were invited into the notoriously private and secretive Metallica camp in 2001 to film the making of the band's long-awaited St. Anger album. Their film was originally intended for use as a promotional video that would be released in conjunction with the album, but before long the directors knew they were onto something much bigger.
Unbeknownst to everyone outside of Metallica's "inner circle," interpersonal relationships between the band members were at an all-time low in the early '00s and this warts-and-all documentary shows how close they came to breaking up altogether. Since the members of Metallica clearly couldn't even stand to be in the same room with one another at the time, they obviously had no business even trying to make an album, and the creation of St. Anger quickly became a seemingly never-ending series of personal and musical struggles.
Sinofsky and Berlinger were there when lead vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield headed into rehab to deal with his alcohol problem, a creatively stifled bassist Jason Newsted left the band after fifteen years, and the remaining members finally brought in celebrity "performance coach" Phil Towle (reportedly at a cost of $40,000 per day!) to help them hash out their problems with one another in a series of dramatic group-therapy sessions.
We also witness the grueling process of auditioning a new bass player and Lars Ulrich's revealing sit-down with former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine to settle some "issues" that have been festering between them for more than two decades.
Unsurprisingly, the St. Anger album was a noisy, disjointed mess when it finally saw the light of the day in 2003. Fans may not necessarily forgive Metallica for the St. Anger debacle after viewing Some Kind Of Monster, but at least they'll understand why it turned out the way it did.
6. Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2007)
The boys in Acrassicauda (Latin for "Black Scorpion") just wanna rock, like any other young band. Unfortunately they happen to live in a war zone, because they're the first - and only - heavy metal band to hail from Iraq, a country that's not exactly known for its heavy music scene.
That's the set up for Heavy Metal in Baghdad, a film that puts a human face on the misery caused by the Iraq war. Acrassicauda seem like your average, likable Joe Headbangers in Metallica and Slipknot shirts, prone to throwing the metal "horn" hand sign at every opportunity. They'd love to simply get up onstage and play or at least get access to some decent recording equipment to get their music out to the masses, but it's nearly impossible due to the constant violence in their country.
In addition to the struggles of the band members, the documentary crew also gets some fascinating "on the ground" footage of what daily life in Baghdad was like circa 2006 (i.e. it was practically the Wild West), which was very eye-opening when compared to the sanitized stuff being aired on network news in the U.S. at the time.
Towards the end of the film, we learn that Acrassicauda has left Iraq and relocated to neighboring Syria, where conditions aren't much better than they were at home, but at least the band is able to commence recording on their first EP and play their first concert in over a year. (They've since emigrated to the U.S. and are still working hard at making their music heard.)
This movie should be required viewing for every spoiled candy-ass rock star who complains about how tough the music business and life on the road can be!
7. Born In the Basement (2007)
Lee "Rat Skates" Kundrat was the original drummer of New Jersey thrash metal legends Overkill until he left the band in 1987, eventually resurfacing as an indie filmmaker and videographer.
In this endearing documentary, which resembles a homemade "Behind the Music: Overkill" episode, Skates takes us back in time to the early days of the Thrash Metal movement and explains how his band first made a name for itself in the East Coast metal scene by borrowing the DIY (Do It Yourself) methods of self-promotion that had been spearheaded by the Punk movement years before.
Skates illustrates the band's rise to prominence through tons of vintage video clips and photos from his private collection which will warm the hearts of any old-school metal fan who remembers the days of ordering demo tapes and cheaply silk-screened t-shirts through the mail, or scanning the bulletin board in the local "cool" record store to find out info on upcoming shows by local bands.
I've been an Overkill fanboy for more than 20 years and thought I knew everything about the band, but even I learned a few new things about their formative years from Born in the Basement, which is a must-see for fans of the band and aficionados of thrash metal in general.
8. Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2005)
Canadian headbanger Sam Dunn has become every metal fan's favorite filmmaker in recent years thanks to his series of documentaries on titans like Iron Maiden (Flight 666), Rush (Beyond the Lighted Stage) and his massive, multi-episode Metal Evolution series for VH1 Classic.
In his directorial debut, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, Dunn is our good-natured guide on a trip around the world as he dissects metal's proud past, controversial present, and mysterious future. Amidst tons of concert clips, interviews abound with such heavyweights as Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper, the late Ronnie James Dio, but the most entertaining has got to be the short-but-sweet interview with Gaahl of the black metal band Gorgoroth, who sums up the "ideology" of his band in one word: "SATAN."
All of Dunn's work is worth seeing, but Metal: A Headbanger's Journey was an excellent start by a guy who's only gotten better with time.
9. Lemmy (2010)
Sub-titled "49% Motherf***er, 51% Son of a B**ch," this profile of the late Motorhead frontman Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister honestly doesn't tell us much about the man that we didn't already know, but its message is clear: Lemmy had Rock N Roll imprinted on his DNA and he was quite possibly the coolest mo-fo ever to set foot on God's green Earth.
If you don't believe me, then maybe you'll believe Slash, Dave Grohl, Henry Rollins, Duff McKagan, Dee Snider, the members of Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth, or any of the dozens of other rock stars who all paid homage to the Man in Black throughout this flick. (The clip of Lemmy joining Metallica onstage for an off-the-cuff cover of Motorhead's "Damage Case" is worth the price of admission all by itself.)
When he wasn't on the road with Motorhead being worshiped by hordes of rockers, Lemmy was a quiet, unassuming fellow who lived alone, played lots of video poker at the Rainbow Bar & Grill, worked on building a relationship with his now-grown son, a fellow musician whom he only met a few years prior to this film. Loaded with cool stories and fantastic concert clips, Lemmy is an engrossing profile of a true original who is greatly missed.
10. KISS Loves You (2004)
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that one of the main reasons I enjoy KISS Loves You so much is because I happen to be in the movie - for about two seconds. Even if I wasn't, though, I would probably still dig this semi-tragic treatise on the dangers of hero worship.
Filmed over the course of several years in the early-to-mid '90s, KISS Loves You can best be described as a "Trekkies" for KISS fans, as it examines the state of KISS fandom during a period when the band's mainstream popularity was slipping at an alarming rate.
Long time fans who missed the band's classic face-painted, fire-breathing, blood spitting era attempted to recapture that vibe by establishing annual KISS Conventions to buy, sell and trade KISS merchandise and collectibles (when I appear in the film, I'm waiting on line to enter the 1995 New Jersey KISS Expo) and watch performances by KISS tribute bands that re-created classic '70s KISS shows.
In addition to often-hilarious interviews with hordes of longtime, obsessed fans, some of whom are truly odd, KISS Loves You zeroes in on a war between two rival tribute bands - "Hotter than Hell" and "Strutter," both of whom are fighting a constant battle for the same audience. We also meet obsessed Ace Frehley fan and collector Bill Baker, whose traveling "Ace Frehley Museum" and Ace tribute band "Fractured Mirror" were regular fixtures on the KISS Convention circuit. We also get perspective from Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, Jerry Only of the Misfits, and Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators.
When the original KISS reunites towards the end of the film, it looks like everyone in Fandom-Land's dreams are finally coming true... but when the tribute bands suddenly find themselves out of work and the real KISS takes the "Convention" idea for themselves (at a hundred bucks a ticket), it seems like they should've been careful what they wished for. As an active member of the KISS "fan scene" back in the day, KISS Loves You brought back a lot of memories for me, even if they make me cringe all these years later.
Hopefully this list has helped you get started on your path to Metal enlightenment (or at least, turned you on to a couple of cool flicks that you may not have seen before). If you have a favorite Metal Documentary that isn't on this list, feel free to leave me a recommendation in the "Comments" section, because I'm always looking for new viewing material.
Before anyone asks - This is Spinal Tap *almost* made this list due to its ultra-realism and the fact that Spinal Tap did actually become a "real" band (more or less) in the years after the film was released, but in the end I decided that its fictional nature disqualified it from being considered as a real "documentary." Thanks for reading and keep rockin'!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Keith Abt
Daniel G on September 02, 2016:
Global metal by Sam Dunn !! Head bangers journey is great too !
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on June 18, 2016:
Hi Northman - thanx for stopping by, glad you enjoyed the read!
Northman on June 18, 2016:
There is a lot of good docs in there so it was hard for me to choose which one i liked best. In the end i chose Anvil because it represented everything that it means to be a metal musician and how difficult it can be to make it big. Its at times very sad and even funny in some parts but connected with me the most out of the list.
annasmom on March 06, 2016:
Even though we have a different opinion regarding Ace Frehley, I love your hubs, and most of the bands you write about. Keep up the good work!
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on June 24, 2015:
Hi Rick - yep, that's another good'un!
Rick on June 24, 2015:
Get Thrashed.....The Story of Thrash Metal
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on June 21, 2015:
Hi Ian - thanx for the tip, I'll give it a look.
Carol Houle from Montreal on December 21, 2014:
Yeah, love that RUSH doc. But when I was a kid Led Zeppelin was heavy. Hundreds of us slept on the sidewalk (all around the forum block) just to get front row seats, or at least seats on the ice.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on October 27, 2013:
Hi Magpiex...that Rush doc is indeed a good one, but I don't think I had seen it yet when I wrote this piece. Thanx for your comment.
Magpieix on October 27, 2013:
I'd add "Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage"
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on August 05, 2013:
An excellent suggestion BDC...but like Spinal Tap, who started out as a spoof and eventually developed into a "real" band of sorts, the semi-fictional origins of Bad News precludes them from inclusion on this list!!
BlackDiamondCheesehead on August 05, 2013:
These are all great documentaries, but I have another one that tops my list - back in 1988, a documentary following British metal band Bad News, entitled "More Bad News" was released. It followed the reunion of these underrated metal masters, and took us along through their journey to a performance at the massive Monsters of Rock festival...
While their appearance at Castle Donnington took an unfortunate turn, the much-too-short "More Bad News" was a heartfelt, honest, and humorous (if not tragic) look at one of the finest bands to come out of the British metal invasion of the 1980's...
Speaking of underrated, bass player Colin Grigson has to be the most over-looked musicians of our generation - the man screams Heavy Metal!
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on May 13, 2013:
Hi smcgavin - I wouldn't call it out-and-out 'bad,' but I was disappointed by "Get Thrashed," mainly because it seemed to take forever to be completed and released and then the final product didn't really live up to all the hype. It wasn't awful but it could've been much better.
Sean McGavin from Bowling Green, Ohio on May 13, 2013:
Great picks. I have to say my Favorites are the "Headbangers Journey" and "Heavy Metal in Baghdad". Is there a documentary you thought was bad?
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 04, 2013:
Hi Lorne - that Jason Becker film has been on my list to check out for a while, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. Thanks for the recommendation.
Lorne Carter from Fayetteville, Arkansas on April 03, 2013:
Don't know if it counts as a metal doc.... but Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet should be in every collection. Both demoralizing & inspiriting it follows Jason from little boy obsessed with the guitar, to neo-classical shred hero, to the David Lee Roth Band, to his bout with MS and what he is doing today. Powerful film that will shake your soul.
I started watching it on Friday at 11pm thinking if I fell asleep I could watch the rest the next night. Watched the entire thing and the special interviews. Then at 3AM I grabbed my guitar and played for an hour. Paid for it the next day but after seeing Jason eyeing his guitars knowing he'd never play them again... who wouldn't feel privileged to pick up their axe and jam.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 02, 2013:
Very cool, nuffsaidstan -- hope you enjoy!!
I saw "Dream Deceivers" in an "art house" movie theater in New York City back in '92 or '93. I wore a Judas Priest t-shirt to the screening. The indie-film snobs at the screening looked at me like I was a serial killer. At least I got a whole row in the theatre to myself. Haha!
nuffsaidstan on April 02, 2013:
I'm going to take a look at that Dream Deceivers vid, i am a massive Priest fan but ive not seen it, Priest are a local band to me they come from my home city Birmingham, as well as Sabbath and Napalm Death.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on March 01, 2013:
Hi SonQuioey10 - glad you liked the list, very cool that it inspired you to check out "Until The Light..." It is indeed a disturbing piece of work. I would not want to run into some of the people who were interviewed in that film in a dark alley...haha.
...and yeah, that Mayhem "Dawn of the Black Hearts" album cover is awful isn't it??
SonQuioey10 on March 01, 2013:
I have to admit. After I read your hub, about 2 weeks ago, I went searching for, Until the Light Takes Us, and watched it that day. I've seen all the rest of them. I like seeing whether someone has similar taste. That documentary, Until the Light etc... was really melancholy, mysterious, and dark. But what really threw me across the floor into the wall and left me muddled and speechless was that album cover of Per Yngve Ohlin's, Dead's, suicide. It looked like a nightmare. And the way Euronymous just milked that horrible situation for fame or popularity, shocked the crap out of me the most throughout the entire movie. It was a great documentary although a bit slow and muddled in some places. Great List.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on February 19, 2013:
Ooooh, y'know, "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" was a contender for this list... I happen to hold that one in high regard cuz the Judas Priest tour it was filmed at (1986's "Turbo" tour) was my first concert... I wasn't at the particular gig in the movie, but the crowd was more or less the same assortment of weirdos... hahaha.
Joe Cogan on February 19, 2013:
I'm going to have to go with a dark horse here: "Heavy Metal Parking Lot".
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on February 18, 2013:
Thanx for diggin' it, PD. I'm sure it helps to have at least some basic knowledge of who the players are to truly get into "Until the Light Takes Us," but it also works as a true crime/investigative documentary.
Christopher Davis from New Port Richey, Florida on February 18, 2013:
Until The Light Takes Us is a fantastic documentary. It's target audience is quite vast. A prior knowledge of Norwegian Black Metal isn't a prerequisite for enjoying the film. Thank you for making it a part of your list.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on February 18, 2013:
@ Joe - I hemmed and hawed about putting "Spinal Tap" on the list but due to the film's fictional nature I decided to save 'em for when I do "10 Great Heavy Metal Movies" ...
@ Freedom: Bummer that you missed your shot at being in "Flight 666." Take it from someone who knows, though: being in a music documentary really doesn't mean much to anybody, haha. I've shown my kids my brief part in "KISS Loves You" a number of times and they're totally unimpressed. I'm like "Trust me, in some circles this is a VERY COOL THING!" and they're like "Yeah, Dad, whatever"....
FreedomMetal from Somewhere In Time on February 18, 2013:
I would add Flight 666 in as well, great documentary film on the first leg of the Somewhere Back In Time world tour...... plus, I was at one of the shows in the film. Unfortunately, I arrived at the venue just after Sam Dunn finished filming the Iron Maiden Fan Club tailgate and thus missed being in the film.......
Joe Cogan on February 18, 2013:
No "This is Spinal Tap"? Granted, the band's past history didn't exist, but they became a semi-real band for the better part of the next three decades as a result of the "mockumentary"'s success.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on February 18, 2013:
Thanx Cryptid - agreed on "Cliff'Em All," sadly I never got to see Metallica live w/Cliff so thankfully that tape exists as a time capsule of that very important era!!
cryptid from USA on February 18, 2013:
I've seen most of those. Until the Light Takes Us is truly chilling. The Anvil documentary will make you cry.
Whenever I see Decline of Western Civilization II I think of how removed I was from all of that as a kid. We all worshiped the LA bands, but we only saw the ones who made it. The carnage of that era is epic.
This is all required watching for the fledgling metalhead. One I'd add (not that you asked :) ) is Cliff 'em All. That was Metallica as they were meant to be.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on February 18, 2013:
Hi Georgie - Thanx for the kind words. I would gladly accept payment in cookies.
Georgie Lowery from North Florida on February 18, 2013:
THREE VULGAR VIDEOS. Aw, come on now! Everybody needs to know how to party like a rock star!
Seriously though, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey is something I've watched multiple times and I think it is an amazing asset to the genre. I've also read a lot about Varg Vikernes as well as the Stave Church burning stuff in Scandinavia. Those guys just add fuel to the "heavy metal is evil" fire.
This Hub is awesome. Somebody seriously needs to give you a raise, or at least make you some cookies!