Clean: a tale of caution and redemption lacking in spark and realism

Olivier Assayas, “Clean” (2004)

Rare are the movies in which two main characters happen to be father and his daughter-in-law yet just this month I’ve already seen two: Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” and Olivier Assayas’ “Clean” which stars the French director’s ex-wife Maggie Cheung as Emily Wang, a washed-up cable TV music show host whose musician husband dies from a drug overdose. The commercial music media blames Wang for giving her husband the drugs he used to kill himself and Wang herself spends time in prison for drug possession. After her release, Wang tries holding down a number of dreary jobs without success while also attempting to reconcile with her young son who is in the care of his grandparents Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry). Rosemary herself is dying and Albrecht does not know if he can cope as sole custodian once Rosemary is gone. After many setbacks and personal crises, a glimmer of hope appears for Emily with a possible career as a singer beckoning in San Francisco and Albrecht throwing his support behind her.

The movie is a conventional treatment of a drug addict struggling to pick up the pieces of her life together after a major tragedy and trying to reform and fit into a world she doesn’t really care for. The movie dallies between portraying a character who must face up to responsibility for her life and her son, who must negotiate life’s tough paths without a man on whom she leaned for support, on the one hand and on the other a message about finding something you love to do and which allows you to develop your talents and let you fly. Cheung delivers a fine and moving performance as Wang with all her flaws and brittle personality: a woman who has been self-indulgent perhaps for too long and who is learning the hard way about having to compromise her individuality in a world that cares as little for her as she does for it. Nolte gives just as fine a performance as Albrecht who empathises with Wang and is willing to give her another chance when all her friends in the music business distrust her and withdraw support at the last moment. Wang finally learns who her real ally is.

It should be said also that just as Wang starts changing her attitude and habits, Albrecht also undergoes a change in his attitude towards his daughter-in-law when he discovers his wife is terminally ill. His willingness to change helps Wang to grasp an opportunity to advance in a new career related to music. Some viewers may object that Wang might be returning to an environment where she will once again be exposed to drugs or to the stresses that encouraged or pushed her into drug addiction. However the music Wang performs in the film’s final scenes seems as far away from the new-wave / post-punk music scene that Wang and her musician husband had favoured originally as the dead-end retail jobs Wang had pursued earlier in the film.

Apart from the two leads’ performances, the film lacks spark and is over-earnest in its character study of an ex-junkie trying to rebuild her life. The pace is very glacial and the style is very flat. Not personally knowing any drug addicts or ex-addicts, I cannot comment on how realistic the film is but it seems rather peculiar for the main character not to be in rehabilitation or seeing a social worker or counsellor while weaning herself off drugs. Cheung looks rather too healthy most of the time and for her to run to familiar friends and places where she and her husband got involved in the drug scene in the first place would seem rather counter-productive. Perhaps the movie’s script-writers were imagining Wang as an Asian version of Marianne Faithfull or Nico; they’d have been better off perhaps talking to ordinary ex-junkies who eventually made good and basing Wang’s character and story on their stories.

True Norwegian Black Metal (Vice documentary): a travel guide into the “world” of a black metal musician

Ivar Berglin and Peter Beste / Vice, “True Norwegian Black Metal” (2007)

Despite the title, this short documentary is a brief travel guide into the world of Gaahl, the lead vocalist for the Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth. Interviewer Ivar Berglin, photographer Peter Beste and one other guy are interested in why Gaahl, born Kristian Espedal in 1975, has such an extreme reputation for violence and apparent Satanism in Norway so they visit him at home in a remote mountain village. They initially find a very convivial man with a considerable wine collection who paints portraits in his spare time. Gaahl then takes the film crew through the forests and up a mountain to a wooden cabin, described as his “grandparents’ cabin; along the way, Beste films beautiful scenes of forest trees with boughs covered with snow.

The docmentary begins with a brief but quite effective survey of the history of black metal beginning with its origins in a British band called Venom in the early 1980s. Scandinavian bands such as Sweden’s Bathory and Denmark’s Hellhammer were inspired by Venom to develop a style based on what they considered to be truly dark aspects of human thought and behaviour and their example later inspired the black metal music sub-culture in Norway in the mid to late 1980s. Sensational crimes such as church-burning, attacking the elderly and immigrants, and Varg Vikernes’ murder of Mayhem’s lead guitarist Euronymous in 1993 brought the scene much unwelcome attention from the Norwegian mainstream media and beyond. Into this milieu arrived Gorgoroth whose members also received intense attention from the media and the police for acts of outrage and violence. Gaahl himself was imprisoned for beating up people and other acts of violence and at the time of his interview with the Vice team, had only recently been released from jail.

Initially appearing very much a typical news report with a fast pace, sharp edits and cuts, and a near-breathless reporting style, once the documentary starts focussing on Gaahl’s life in his remote mountain home, it becomes more intimate with a slower pace. As he takes the Vice reporting team through the forests and up a mountain in miserable weather, the reporters voice their annoyance at his actions and moan how they really came “for the music” when all the while Gaahl is showing them the source of the inspiration for his and Gorgoroth’s work!

In these later scenes, Gaahl is portrayed as a lone wolf who draws inspiration from nature and whose personal philosophy is inaccessible from the Vice reporting team, let alone the rest of the world. We are encouraged to empathise with Gaahl and his outlook on life.

Since its making, the documentary has been criticised for misreporting aspects of Gaahl’s life, among them the fact that he actually lives in an apartment in Bergen and does indeed socialise a lot. I don’t know if this misreporting was accidental or intentional but if it had been the latter, I confess to having fallen hook, line and sinker for the deception: the actual “plot” is sketchy, the film crew and Gaahl play their parts, and my own imagination fills in the details.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot: affectionate look at 1980s metal fans and an innocent world long gone

Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” (1986)

In the wake of news that British heavy metal band Judas Priest will cease touring and will be in the main a studio band, holding some live concerts from time to time perhaps, I thought it would be timely to sneak a peek at this documentary about the band’s fans made in 1986. The film was made in Largo, Maryland, during one of the band’s tours: this was probably just after the band had released “Turbo”, one of its lesser-selling efforts, featuring as it does synthesiser guitars which didn’t go down well with JP fans. The film-makers interviewed a number of concert-goers in the outdoor car-park in the afternoon as the early birds try to get a space and decent spots in the venue to see the band.

Most of the people interviewed are very young, ranging in age from thirteen to the early twenties with a few men in their late twenties and thirties; on the whole they are middle class and very friendly and obliging to the film-makers. They are well-mannered and enthusiastic about Judas Priest and other metal bands popular in the 1980s: mainly Dokken and Iron Maiden, with a couple of youngsters mentioning Metallica who were moving from the underground into the mainstream metal scene at the time. Several kids are sozzled on alcohol but they are well-behaved and colourful language is restricted to the occasional “f” word. Special mention must be made of the mop-topped boy wearing the “DC / 10” T-shirt who looks a little like Hollywood actor Adrien Brody: he excitedly performs an impersonation of JP singer Rob Halford singing “Living After Midnight” and ranks JP and Iron Maiden as first and (very distant) second respectively. Having heard Priest and Maiden myself – once upon a time, I owned four or five Priest albums including “Sad Wings of Destiny”, “British Steel” and “Screaming for Vengeance” and taped the song “Exciter” off the radio – I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

The police shepherding the young people into the car park and venue are gentle and friendly and there’s no sign of any hostility between the two groups. The officers are dressed as if for summer duties in their short-sleeved shirts and there’s hardly a baseball cap or set of bovver boots among them.

Watching this documentary was a real eye-opener: I couldn’t help but think of the 1980s as a joyful time when rock and metal were more innocent than now and the main aim was to party-party-party, get drunk and maybe get laid. As yet there are no songs about alienation, “Fade to Black” suicide, apocalyptic scenarios, depression or repressive governments locking down cities; then again, America in the 1980s was still fairly prosperous and young people aspired to attending college, maybe picking up postgraduate studies, and landing a decent well-paying job. If Metallica was becoming popular, it was more the speedy music and drummer Lars Ulrich’s puppyish Paul-McCartney looks than the lyrics attracting young people. Police and youth relations at least look genial. One might assume that one or two of the older guys were on the look-out for some naive nymphettes but one look at them and it seems obvious the fellas are there for the music and to practise their air-guitar fretboarding.

Perhaps later on when the concert ended and the kids were going back to their cars, there was trouble: I have heard that at one Judas Priest concert in the States during the 1980s (it could also have been in Canada for all I know), someone set the cars in the car-park alight and concert-goers were greeted with a bonfire on their return. Whatever, this is one documentary about the band that the JP men might treasure as part of their history: it’s short but it’s also a very affectionate look at ’80s metal fans, their passion, camaraderie and sense of fun and humour.

A welcome look at the importance of an independent label in the music industry through “Heavenly Pop Hits: the Flying Nun Story”

Mitchell Hawkes, “Heavenly Pop Hits: the Flying Nun Story” (2002)

A long overdue and welcome survey of a particular music scene at a particular time in a country that’s long been a minnow in global youth culture and music is this documentary about the New Zealand record label Flying Nun Records. Founded in 1981 by Roger Shepherd in Christchurch as a reaction against the domination of the large commercial record labels in the pop music industry and their imposition of a narrow set of values and expectations on music, the label originally intended to highlight the music scene in Christchurch but quickly began championing the emerging pop music scene in Dunedin, a city a few hundred kilometres south of Christchurch on the South Island. The label’s glory days soon followed with significant acts such as The Clean, The Verlaines, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience (later renamed JPS Experience after being threatened by a lawsuit by the French philosopher’s estate), Scorched Earth Policy, The Dead C and Alastair Galbraith being signed up. The label faded as a power-player in the alternative music scene as various bands on the label either broke up or left to join other labels or market their own music and changes in ownership brought the label under Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation umbrella and then Time Warner. In 2009, Roger Shepherd bought back the label with financial help from three other New Zealand business partners including the musician Neil Finn and his wife, and is currently trying to build up the label’s reputation to what it was in the 1980s.

The documentary is well-made if very fast-paced and follows a general chronological narrative. Interviews with Shepherd, sound engineer Chris Knox who rose to virtual business partner of Shepherd and various Flying Nun alumni bands are mixed with archived music clips and snapshots of Dunedin city life, all united by narration by unseen speaker Hugh Sundae. Topics such as the label’s financial and administrative disorganisation (not a rare phenomenon among independent labels founded by enthusiastic music fans who had to learn how to run a business on the hop), the British music press’s snobbery towards New Zealand bands, the resistance of New Zealand radio stations towards playing local music that didn’t fit mainstream commercial imperatives, how the so-called jangly-guitar “Dunedin Sound” arose, various bands’ personal issues that played havoc with their careers and music, and the friction that often arose between the label and its bands because of lack of communication, the label’s chaotic running or just plain bad luck, all make appearances. Particular bands like The Clean, The Verlaines, The Chills, Straitjacket Fits, 3ds and Headless Chickens and their histories are featured.

As the 1980s progressed into the 1990s, FNR took on more adventurous, experimental or confrontational bands such as The Dead C, The Gordons / Bailter Space and The Skeptics, and the label’s inadequacies in managing its finances and the competing demands and requirements of its artists put increasing pressure on Shepherd and Knox in juggling their responsibilities. WEA Records and then Festival Mushroom Records stepped in with financial and business assistance and Shepherd, after over 15 years of running FNR, sold the label to Festival Mushroom. The influence of the new owners brought a new professionalism to FNR but some of the label’s endearing if wasteful ways were lost. At the time the documentary was made in 2002, FNR’s future looked hopeful – the end credits mention that Roger Shepherd was working in England as a wine merchant – but this was just before the label fell into a creative black hole under American ownership.

The documentary could have been tweaked in parts with some interviews shortened as it tends to drag in its second half, concentrating on some of FNR’s more significant artists, and its style seems a little too slick and professional for FNR, given that the label was as famous for its easy and lackadaisical approach to managing bands as it was for signing up and promoting underground acts in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. While the film clips capture the New Zealand 1980s underground music scene’s energy and bubbliness, after a while they start looking generic and become tiresome. The music featured is varied for guitar-dominated indie pop jangle; only the more obscure acts like The Dead C, The Gordons (later Bailter Space) and The Skeptics really stick out for their uncompromising and sometimes confrontational styles of guitar rock with The Dead C making the jump into freeform improvised guitar noise that got my attention in the mid-1990s and makes the band still dear to me.

The issue of how a record label can reconcile encouraging wayward and uncomrpomising creativity with the need for bands to be disciplined enough to compose and record songs or other music and make money for themselves and for the label is an ever-present current throughout the film but is never really adequately addressed by the narration or the interviewees apart from Bruce Russell of The Dead C. An all too common problem also is that several of FNR’s bands like The Chills were on the verge of cracking global “alternative mainstream” music markets but failed due to lack of financial and moral support from either Shepherd or Knox as the two head honchos were often overwhelmed by their commitments or were too absorbed with finding new bands or indulging their other artists’ needs and preferences.

A revisit to FNR surely seems in order for Mitchell Hawkes and his film crew now that Roger Shepherd has regained control of his famous child; the label certainly could do with increased attention and some money! The documentary is highly informative and is a worthy history of a significant label whose influence was to spread around the world through its bands.

 

No-one Knows About Persian Cats: showcase of Iranian pop culture and contemporary society

Bahman Ghobadi, “No-one Knows About Persian Cats” (2009)

An ingenious film that uses a fiction plot to structure and showcase the Iranian pop music scene and youth culture, “No-one Knows About Persian Cats” brims with young energy and zest and combines youthful hope with tragedy born of the repressive authoritarian restrictions in modern Iranian society. Two young musicians, Ashkan and Negar, played by non-actors who really are called Ashkan (Koshanejad) and Negar (Shaghaghi), dream of hiring two other musicians for their band so they can get passports and visas to go to Britain, ostensibly to play at a music festival there; in reality, they need the passports to escape Iran permanently so that they will be free to play the kind of indie bubble pop they specialise in without having to conform to Iranian government requirements. To this end, they must raise the money by organising a gig and they must find other musicians; they are directed by a friend to Nader (Hamed Behdad), a hyperactive, fast-talking impresario, who agrees to organise the passports and visas, and chase various bands, artists and others to perform at the gig. The bulk of the film is devoted to Ashkan, Negar and Nader travelling around Tehran on Nader’s scooter, meeting bands and musicians, and hearing their music. As time goes by, the threesome feel the pressure to get the documents done, the gig line-up ready and the money on hand to pay the shonky passport-makers; Nader disappears for three days so our friends Ashkan and Negar look for him. They find him at a rave party but as Ashkan tries to coax him out, the party is gate-crashed by the police, everyone tries to flee, the cops resort to heavy-handed tactics and tragedy results.

With hand-held cameras, the film uses a mixture of music-video filming and home-movie filming methods for a somewhat amateurish (but not fully improvised) look with some scenes that are very obviously rehearsed and staged. Each act the trio visits represents a different genre of music popular in Iran: folk, jazz rock, r’n’b, Metallica-influenced thrash metal, garage rock, hard rock, hard blues, fusion, indie pop and rave, and while each act plays, the music-video filming methods adopted for each are borrowed from the filming style associated with the act’s genre. So while hiphop artist Rap Khon sings, the camera moves slowly before the singer as he walks towards it, during the rave scene, the camera shutters flicker to simulate the trippy atmosphere of the party. The subject of the songs sung is significant: romance, longing for freedom, modern urban life and its ills, anomie and lack of connection in contemporary Iran are covered; most of the songs though are not sung in full. The most noteworthy performances are those of Rap Khon and the honey-voiced female torch singer Rana Farhan.

Most actors are non-professionals and viewers get an insight into the restrictions the musicians labour under: the guitar-oriented bands talk of having to practise in cow sheds and garages at certain times of the day, else their neighbours will report them to the police. Ever present by their very absence are the authorities who are portrayed by Ghobadi as hovering at the edges, unseen yet ever ready to strike. Ashkan and Negar play their characters straight and are a little dour; Negar almost verges on being a hysterical nagging mother-hen. The person most likely to make the most impression on viewers is the fast-talking Nader who rattles away so quickly he makes even the most stereotyped, fast-talking Hollywood music impresario creation look like a Texas drawler. In a memorable Best-Actor-Oscar scene with an unseen police inspector, Nader prattles at near-Mach speed, lying through his teeth so hard it’s a wonder they don’t break, and collapses into tears so convincingly that the hardened police inspector, who’s obviously seen a lot of hammy Iran’s-Got-Talent performances, takes pity on him and waives the fines and punishments! Near the end though, Nader unexpectedly reveals a more sensitive side to his otherwise sparkling if irresponsible personality.

The climax could almost have come straight out of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel / film “Persepolis” but it’s more likely a coincidence that the party scenes in both Ghobadi and Satrapi’s creations are so similar. For most young Iranians, private parties are a way of discovering new music, making contacts and meeting new people; they are also an expression of dissent in a society where authorities are intrusive enough to dictate what people, men and women, are allowed or not allowed to wear on pain of imprisonment or heavy fines. No wonder the police are so thuggish in chasing and arresting party-goers.

The film does get repetitive but Ghobadi is as interested in showcasing contemporary life for young people and musicians in an underground music scene as in telling his story. A tension arises from the filming techniques used and the mixed documentary / fiction narrative adopted which gives energy and crackle to the film’s subject matter. Viewers may feel Ghobadi is trying to prove to Western audiences that Iranian kids are just as hip as everyone else in the world and there may very well be an element of that striving in Ghobadi’s decision to make the film.

Overall this is worthwhile viewing to get a snapshot glimpse of Iranian youth culture as it was in 2009 and of the broader Iranian society, its challenges and problems for young people there generally.

Modulations, Cinema for the Ear: boring and direction-less survey of electronic dance music genres from 1970s to 1990s

Iara Lee, “Modulations, Cinema for the Ear” (1998)

Billed as a history of electronic music and music technology in the 20th century. “Modulations …” turns out to be a survey of various electronically-based dance music genres from the 1970s to late 1990s as they developed in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Some of the music might be nice and I did recognise some musicians and music journalists who were interviewed (Genesis P-orridge, Kodwo Eshun who used to write for The Wire music magazine, David Toop, illbient pioneer DJ Spooky, members of the 1970s German psychedelic experimental group Can) but I felt let down and cheated by the documentary’s emphasis on dance and rave music to the exclusion of everything else that happened in popular music and its associated subcultures since the late 1970s. Reliance on interviews with musicians, DJs, fans and journalists and their subjective views on dance music genres such as Detroit techno, house, jungle and their various spin-offs with no over-arching voice-over narration to tie all the different points of view together makes for a fragmented assemblage from which viewers have to piece together the competing genres into a time-line in which the genres exist in parallel on both sides of the North Atlantic pond. There’s no attempt on the film-makers’ part to make sense of the dance music phenomenon and what it says about youth culture and why it arose and became popular when it did. As the film progresses, the lack of an over-arching structure and direction means the documentary risks being boring with the constant parade of talking heads spliced with snippets of live and studio performances, some animation and general film footage.

The documentary begins with Genesis P-orridge talking about how early forms of experimental music were inspired by the cut-up techniques of William S Burroughs (in which bits and pieces of prose are cut out of their original paragraphs or story and spliced together to suggest something new or different). There is a progression from musique concrete, a genre of experimental music developed in France which uses found sound and field recordings as material for creating original music, to Detroit techno (a form of house music that arose in Detroit in the late 1980s) to jungle, a UK genre combining hiphop and elements of techno. The scene then shifts to the US to investigate disco and the rise of house in Chicago in the 1980s, combining disco with electronic influences from the German band Kraftwerk. This calls for another leap back to Europe to investigate genres like gabba (a Dutch form of techno using hyper-fast beats and an aggressive approach) and ambient versions of house.

The film’s attempt to emulate the energy and pace of the genres it covers is understandable but without an unseen narrator to tie the quick edited shots and the interviews together, “Modulations …” will lose viewers quickly. Showing snapshots of interviews rather than large passages from them loses the context necessary to understand statements made by interviewees and some of what they say could be misinterpreted by viewers. Interviewees and the people and scenes they talk about end up coming across as self-centred, hedonistic and uncaring when such may not be the case. If the purpose of much dance electronica is to induce a trance-like state through repetition, speed and over-stimulation / over-saturation of the senses with colour, sound, smell and image, that isn’t to be derided as self-indulgent: people may find their own freedom, liberation or a sense of community and oneness with others that way. The use of drugs like ecstasy is a means to an end, not a self-indulgent activity in itself, though it must be said that precautions such as drinking lots of water while dancing and ingesting ecstasy are necessary and that it’s the illegal status of ecstasy, not the actual drug itself, that could be encouraging organised crime to control its distribution networks and to tamper with its purity.

The really interesting moment comes about the 47th minute when some American house fans and DJ Spooky talk about anomie and passivity in modern Western society, and how many people feel alienated, bored and unengaged with their cultural surroundings. This is an interesting point that the documentary could have taken up to show how modern dance electronica culture can alleviate such feelings and encourage people to feel connected to others. Another interesting moment is a camera shot of Asian women workers, some looking middle-aged, in a factory inspecting synthesisiers and samplers: what do these women think of these instruments, do they know who uses them and how they are used, do they know what music is made with them? What are these women paid for making and inspecting these instruments, and do they feel proud of their work?

Though the film does mention experimental music pioneers like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer, Genesis P-orridge and Pierre Henry are interviewed and there’s even a very brief shot of Japanese noisician Masami Akita of Merzbow fame playing live, there’s no coverage of any other form of electronic-based music that isn’t dance or rhythm-based: there’s no mention of isolationist music, formal composition or improvised music that uses electronics, industrial, power electronics or noise music. If the film had been packaged and presented as a documentary on the history of dance music and that only, then it has historical value but as it is, it’s a jumbled collection of talking heads and music clips that fails to do much justice to a set of music genres that in their own way try to celebrate individuality, freedom, diversity and tolerance.

Satan Rides the Media: how media sensationalism helped create a legend and a cult

Torstein Grude, “Satan Rides the Media” / “Satan rir media” (1998)

Focussing on the sensational murder of Norwegian black metal musician Oystein Aarseth aka Euronymous by fellow musician Varg Vikernes aka Count Grishnackh in Oslo in 1993, the media hysteria that followed Vikernes’s trial in 1996 and the issue of church burnings by black metal followers generally through the 1990s, this documentary raises the question of the interplay between media sensationalism and the tendency of people in the media spotlight to play up to and manipulate news reporters with provocative stories and actions, many of which turn out to be untrue.

Using interviews with black metal musicians, police, journalists and academics, Grude builds up a clear and complex picture of the media cooking up stories about the supposed Satanic outrages of a small underground music scene whose main crimes until Euronymous’s murder were of church arson, how these stories were used by Vikerenes himself to gain sympathy among young people, and how the stories actually hindered police investigations into other crimes suspected of a connection with the black metal scene. Musicians freely admit that they deliberately used shocking images to create spectacle and theatre, to scare people, to release emotion and relieve social pressures on young people in contemporary Norwegian society. Journalists from the Bergen Tidende and other Norwegian newspapers admit to making up and embellishing stories about blood-drinking, sacrifices and Satanic worship when nothing of the kind ever occurred. Academics and police pour scorn on the sensationalist aspects of the black metal subculture which the media fabricated and obsessed over.

What gets lost amid the media hysteria is why black metal blossomed as it did in Norway and nowhere else: what was it about Norwegian society in the 1980s that a group of young people felt alienated and got together to create and play extremely aggressive and violent music that attracted people of like mind and yearning and which also drew in attitudes and behaviours that eventually spiralled out of control? A significant issue is that once Vikernes was arrested for murdering Euronymous, people in the BM scene started to open up to police about crimes committed by others they knew in the scene and provided details that often pointed to Vikernes’s involvement; as though Vikernes’s arrest was a relief and a heavy burden now suddenly removed. This might suggest that the level of alienation in Norway among young people in this scene was so great that though they obviously needed guidance from adults, they felt unable to ask for it and the adults did not or could not see that the youngsters were in trouble.

There is also some cursory treatment of black metal’s stand against institutional Christianity: in some of his interviews Varg Vikernes makes very valid points about the forced conversion of the Norse people in Norway to Christianity under Olaf Tryggvason who reigned as King Olav I from 995 to 1000. Olaf Tryggvason used violence, torture and death to terrorise and steamroll his people into accepting Christian beliefs. Temples dedicated to worshipping Odin and his retinue were razed and Christian churches, usually made of wood, were built over their remains; hence, black metallers who resented Christian hypocrisy and Christianity’s history of oppression against non-believers believed they were dealing out justice to an evil force by burning its houses of worship. It’s possible that much of the conformity and the sanctimonious morality of Scandinavian society, disguised as egalitarianism and fair justice for all, can be put down to Christian oppression of individuality and encouraged a passive aggression that found release in black metal.

Vikernes comes across as intelligent but self-serving: he blames his problems and his arrest on others; in court scenes, he plays up to the media and his fanbase. Other musicians say he liked to provoke people and stir up trouble to get attention for himself, his albums and for the black metal scene generally while Euronymous was keen to keep the subculture small and exclusive, the better perhaps to control and direct it. After his imprisonment – he was sentenced to jail for 21 years, the maximum allowed in Norway – Vikernes continued to be a source of unhealthy media speculation which kept linking him to church burnings and murders in other countries. As recently as 2004, a teenager burned down a church in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne, Australia, under the supposed influence of Vikernes and his Burzum project and was sentenced to three years working in a youth training centre. The church itself has been replaced by a community park.

That these issues are made very clear is a tribute to the director and his crew who made the film: some of the issues may seem complicated but they are easy to follow and the film’s style is straightforward and matter-of-fact. One might expect a lot of black metal music in the background but there isn’t much there at all; I was so absorbed in listening to the issues that emerged from Vikernes’ trial and the accompanying circus that any music that might have been there became completely invisible (or inaudible rather). For most of the film’s running time, Grude lets his interview subjects do the talking and drive the documentary, and there is little voice-over narration. It would be good if Grude had the time and resources to revisit the documentary and find out what has happened to the people involved in the case (especially Vikernes now that he is out of jail and keeping busy recording new albums and spending time with his family on his farm) and perhaps record a follow-up documentary.

 

The show goes on in “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Matt O’Casey, “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Contrary to my expectations, knowing something of the band’s history, I found the second part of the BBC2 documentary more interesting and more involving than the first part. The episode is a more unified piece and is entirely a straightforward account of the band’s years from the “Flash Gordon” album, released in 1980, up to and beyond Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS. As in the first part, the narrative is based entirely on interviews with remaining band members Brian May and Roger Taylor (John Deacon having retired from music soon after Queen’s break-up in 1992) and other significant people who worked with the band during the 1980s.

The main issues that arise in the documentary include those that plague many bands after they achieve success: a search for a new direction after having reached the top; the drop-off in creativity and originality combined with the struggle to keep pumping out the hits; getting on one another’s nerves after being together so long and wanting to do different things that may not agree with your bandmates. With Mercury finally acknowledging his homosexuality and finding acceptance in the gay community in the early 1980s, Queen starts drifting apart in musical taste and direction at a time when the band most needs to consolidate its reputation in the United States; after a trail of literal hits followed by misses, by 1984 the musicians finally realise they will never conquer middle America, the country too conservative and restricted in culture, taste and humour. By this time having successfully toured Argentina and Brazil and playing to huge crowds in football stadiums, the members console themselves by writing and releasing more material, playing Live Aid and touring eastern Europe. The Live Aid show in 1985 is particularly invigorating and leads to a renewed purpose which doesn’t last long; by the time the band reaches the end of its 1986 tour in Wembley Stadium in London, May and Taylor already have a hunch that Mercury isn’t up to performing at his usual high level of intensity and that he is already unwell.

The other significant issue that arises is the extent to which the band compromises with the political context the members find themselves in, in agreeing to tour Brazil and Argentina, then both ruled by military fascist governments in the early 1980s, and later playing Sun City in one of the bantustans in South Africa in the mid-1980s. Although May and Taylor stoutly defend the decision to play Sun City and the band did donate the concert proceeds to charity, their justification never sounds quite convincing and the two appear to be trying to convince themselves more than their interviewer. Of course their dilemma pales in comparison with, say, the astounding hypocrisy of U2’s decision to relocate their tax base in the Netherlands after Ireland’s taxation law reform in 2006 which would have required the U2 members to pay a higher rate of tax; while minimising your income tax in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, this combined with U2 and in particular Bono’s self-promotion as leaders of charity and other “social justice” causes leaves a very sour taste in the mouth – but in the more “innocent” 1980s, to go to Sun City supposedly to play to mixed-race audiences in a country where racial segregation was a fact of everyday life was a very naive decision for people who had university degrees as Queen did.

The period from 1986 to November 1991 when Mercury died is portrayed as fairly heart-breaking; Mercury’s condition goes from bad to worse and then some. There’s a whiff of manipulation here: in 1988, Mercury managed to fit in a musical collaboraion with the Catalan-Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe which is not mentioned in the documentary. Video clips alone demonstrate the ravages of AIDS on Mercury’s looks: despite a defiant blazing-eyed attitude in “I’m Going Slightly Mad”, he is shrunken and gaunt in most filmed appearances. The film filters for Queen’s last video clip are deliberately clouded over to soften Mercury’s heavily made-up features.

The documentary quickly sweeps through Mercury’s death and funeral, and the prurient attention this sparked in the Murdoch tabloid press, and concludes with the 1992 Wembley Stadium send-off that featured several famous singers of the time on a run-through of beloved Queen hits. There’s a quick race through post-Mercury projects including a musical and a collaboration with Paul Rodgers but surprisingly nothing about Queen’s actual impact on their public and on other musicians in particular.

As in the first episode, none of Mercury’s close associates appear to elucidate or defend some of his actions and the behaviour that resulted in his contracting AIDS. The fact that John Deacon doesn’t appear as an interviewee is also a blow as he was responsible for some of the band’s biggest hit-single successes during the 1980s. As a slightly more detached member of the band through much of its history, Deacon is an ideal person to offer a different though still first-hand perspective on his band-mates’ decisions and actions; May and Taylor are simply too close to Mercury as friends to offer a critical view of him though May at least tries.

The episode is better than I thought it would be: the songs that Queen offered in the 1980s aren’t anywhere near as good as what they pumped out in the previous decade but the episode does show that even when a band achieves success, the commercial pressures to maintain that level of achievement increase. It may very well be that such pressures to keep banging out hits sapped the band’s creativity and encouraged Mercury’s self-destructive behaviour. Away from the stage, Mercury was known to be shy and introverted and possibly he found the disconnect between his stage persona and his actual personality to be too much for him to handle.

 

Just another ordinary rock music documentary in “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 1)”

Matt O’Casey, “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 1)” (2011)

To mark the 40th anniversary of a beloved British rock music institution, the BBC made this 2-part series featuring apparently rare interviews and until now unseen archival film material. Part 1 covers the band’s early history from its formation up to the early 1980s and includes the first seven albums. The episode revolves around two of the remaining band members, lead guitarist Brian and drummer Roger Taylor, speaking to an unseen interviewer and reminiscing about significant periods in the band’s career; other people associated with the band, like John Reid who managed Queen for a brief time in the late 1970s and producer Roy Thomas Baker are also interviewed. Band recordings relevant to the passages that proceed chronologically enliven what is a basically straightforward retelling of Queen’s 1970s history which is further spiced with music video clips and a bit of old late 1970s social background context when punk and new wave erupted in the UK and for a while made Queen look dangerously antiquated.

In its first half-hour the film whooshes through the band’s timeline with an emphasis on how particular songs were put together and recorded in the studio. The second half-hour relaxes into an amble through a number of issues that affected Queen’s career throughout the decade such as the tension between preserving musical integrity and the drive for commercial success, creativity under pressure and production expenses, the hostility of the music press, the ownership of songs and the naivety of American audiences confronted by the band’s deliberate artifice and camp image. Parts of this section aren’t always interesting and feature trivia that don’t add much to viewers’ understanding of why the band formed, why the members were so hungry for success and recognition and the song-writing and recording process. Not much really has to be done by the film crew save for ensuring that the images have a structure most viewers can follow: to some extent the music itself reflects and suggests progress and change, and the band’s upward career trajectory in the 1970s and early 1980s conveniently fills out part of the episode in an entertaining way.

Ultimately the episode isn’t very in-depth and merely falls into the kind of conventional rock music documentary territory that dutifully recounts the peaks and troughs of the band’s career. I for one would really like to know what drove singer Freddie Mercury into wanting to be not just another rock or pop singer but a legend, how he developed his singing style and stage act, and what people or styles of music influenced him when he was young. The fact that Mercury was of Parsi Indian ancestry and grew up in an environment heavily influenced by British colonial culture, Zoroastrian culture and others against a multicultural background in India and the-then Tanganyika and Zanzibar territories must have had considerable effect on his vocal style, visual presentation and song-writing approach but the film says nothing about this. The film omits interviews with significant people in Mercury’s life including his girlfriend Mary Austin and family members who might have shed some interesting or revealing light on his motivations and character. Also early music influences on the band overall – influences that would have included 1960s psychedelic rock, early 1970s progressive rock and early heavy metal among others- aren’t covered much.

Shame that an opportunity to look at Queen’s career in a way different from how most rock music documentaries are done was wasted. This particular number will soon join the ranks of other ho-hum TV biographies and be forgotten by most people apart from Queen fans.

Black Metal Satanica: not very Satanic and not very informative

Mats Lundberg, “Black Metal Satanica” (2008)

This documentary promised initially to be a fairly in-depth investigation of the Scandinavian black metal music scene and its agenda and for the first half hour “Black Metal Satanica” did entertain with a pleasing mix of band interviews, music and historical archive material. Over the rest of its 80-minute course though the film deteriorated into an unfocussed parade of interviews which suggests director Lundberg lost control of the project and let the musicians he interviewed take over. I was quite disappointed at how the film turned out as the mostly Swedish interviewees were well-spoken, polite and thoughtful, and offered interesting insights into the general tenor of the scene and their own motivations for joining it; they gave the impression of being able to answer almost any challenging and provocative questions Lundberg could have put to them. The film also offers snapshots of very interesting and often expressionistic black metal film clips and energetic concert footage. The mostly black metal music soundtrack which also features a little ambient music and even some Christian church choral music in parts runs throughout the film and gives it an energetic and aggressive ambience though it is never intrusive.

The most interesting section of the film is its examination of black metal’s opposition to Christianity and how this derives from the history of Christian proselytisation in Scandinavia at the tail-end of the Viking period: in many parts of Norway and Sweden, communities were forced to accept Christianity and baptism under threat of invasion. The film omits to add that temples dedicated to Odin worship were razed and churches built in their stead which would have explained the church burnings that mentioned later on. A link is made between Scandinavia’s Viking history and culture on the one hand and black metal on the other in a superficial way: the interviewees talk about self-respect and resisting the Christian influence on current society but there is little about the appeal of Viking values such as individualism, curiosity, an adventurous spirit which drove the Vikings to explore and colonise Iceland, Greenland and parts of North America, self-reliance and a desire to beat the elements, transcend death and be remembered for heroic exploits.

After this stirring episode, the film investigates early inspirations like the northern European physical environment and climate, and bands like Bathory, Mayhem and Burzum on black metal generally (no mention of Darkthrone and Emperor?) and delves into various black metal recreations such as grave desecrations, murdering homosexual men, church burnings, studying Anton Szandor LaVey’s Satanic Bible, self-mutilation and apocalyptic fantasies. Distinguishing between Norwegian and Swedish BM is non-existent; the credits that introduce each interviewee/s at least could have indicated which country they were from and Lundberg could have asked some Swedish subjects about when and how BM became popular in Sweden. I begin to wonder whether Lundberg is becoming enthralled or overwhelmed by the style of BM rather than its substance. There is plenty substantial that is suggested by the interviewees and the activities covered here which is not covered in much depth: black metal’s emphasis on pseudo-Nietzschean elitism, freedom of expression and individuality, and closeness to and concern for nature which lead to a love of land, nationalism and Romanticism (and National Socialist beliefs) which in their turn feed a hatred of humanity, pessimism about the future of the planet and ultimately a desire for an apocalypse or a series of disaster events that will sweep humans away into the dustbin of history and cleanse the Earth.

(I always smile wryly whenever I hear or see people say that a concern for the environment indicates a left-wing / socialist point of view with a concern for social justice: I only have to think of what I learned at high school and read in books and on the Internet since to remember that the one time when a bunch of nature-worshippers and environmentalists plus others among them took over an entire government by themselves was in Germany from 1933 to mid-1945. Even today, First World environmentalists frequently advocate one position or policy after another in various Third World countries without considering the impact their ideas might have on the people who would have to live with the fallout as well as the intended results: not a good look, I’m afraid.)

Past the halfway point, the narrator with the irritating American accent drops out and the film becomes a series of the same talking heads covering familiar ground. At one point the topic of Christian black metal (a mostly American sub-genre phenomenon in which BM elements are in the employ of a robust take-no-prisoners Christianity that shoots first before proffering the other cheek) is broached to the interviewees who express surprise and disbelief and for a brief moment the film shows some sparkle. When the closing credits arrive, I realise I didn’t learn much from “Black Metal Satanica” that I wasn’t already aware of and that there is plenty more Lundberg and his guests could have spoken about. Why does black metal have an elitist point of view rather than an inclusive democratic one? How much influence does Nietzschean philosophy have on the music and the sub-culture that surrounds it? Is that influence a superficial one or are black metal followers aware that to be an Übermensch, one must not only continually test oneself against insuperable odds but welcome such tests joyfully?

Black Metal Satanica? – not very much so as it turns out: the film serves best as an introduction for viewers not familiar with BM who moreover will have to do some extra homework on the BM agenda if they want to understand it fully.