-By Doc Coyle
The heavy metal world has been touched upon by filmmakers a handful of times, mostly as a collection of clichés and cartoonish buffoonery, informed by the outlandish imagery of the 1980’s mainstream metal explosion. Generally, the depictions were harmless and affectionate like This Is Spinal Tap, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Wayne’s World, and Airheads. Sometimes, they are tone deaf and mostly inauthentic like the more recent entries, Rock of Ages and Hesher. Icelandic film, Metalhead is perhaps the first motion picture to capture and project an accurate portrayal of the mindset of real metal fans; it exposes the roots of why we are attracted to the music in the first place, through-and-though, to our the core of our souls.
The plot revolves around a farming family in a desolate and isolated, rural Icelandic community who is dealing with the death of their eldest son, Baldur, who was killed in a farming accident. Our protagonist, Hera, is the sister who witnessed her brother’s death as a 12 year old, and deals with the grief by diving into Baldur’s leftover heavy metal and rock music collection. She burns all of her “normal”, colorful, girly clothes and immerses herself in heavy metal culture: starts playing her brother’s guitar, wears a leather jacket and metal T-shirts, and isolates herself in a headphoned cocoon of Judas Priest, Iron Iron Maiden, and Megadeth. We fast-forward several years where she is a young adult, but is still playing the part of the rebellious teen, self-banished to her room in the safety of her music, posters, and guitar. Hera also engages in a series of reckless and destructive activities that terrorize the quiet small town. Meanwhile, her parents have dealt with the grief by avoiding emotional reconciliation and from the comfort of their small community and local Christian church.
I have to declare that Metalhead is exceptionally well made. Director and writer, Ragnar Bragason, deserves hefty praise for his superlative work. The beautiful cinematography is breathtaking, brilliantly capturing the stoic and bleak, mountainous backdrops. Every acting performance is rich, melancholy, and believable. The written dialogue has flow and a natural pace (even if it is subtitled). And the music and sound design strings you a long with every emotional wave, pulling you in to the intimate moments where your heart almost stops and the elated moments make the hair on your arm stand up.
There are 2 themes that truly hover over every aspect of the film: grief and isolation. Hera used metal as a coping mechanism, as way to make sense of a world that was unjust and senseless. She was part of a devoutly religious community, and that community and religion had failed her. God failed her. For Hera, heavy metal was all about rebelling against every mundane and institutional convention that comes with being in a restrictive, rural small town. This sentiment is universal as this story could have taken place in almost any isolated and small town in the world; where there is no room for subversive culture. The music represents freedom and possibility in a life where your day’s labor is grueling and monotonous and everything is predictable from who will marry, the bland sweater you wear, and where you will be buried.
Metalhead made me think about how and why I got into heavy metal. I’ve always felt like an outsider, being bi-racial, and never really fitting in. Did the trauma of my own broken home make this raucous and aggressive music so appealing? Is metal just an affectation of youthful angst to be hung out to dry once you’ve dealt with your “issues” or quarrels with self-esteem? Tracing the steps 20 years later and performing self-psychoanalysis doesn’t bring a clear picture of the why or the how. I never fully used “metal” as a way to establish my identity like the character in the film, despite it being the most prominent part of my life for most of my life.
I worry that the film describes only one kind of Metalhead: a person who looks the part and wears the heavy metal uniform as an identifier, someone who has serious anger issues and destructive or violent tendencies, or someone who practices Satanism or anti-Christian dogma. The truth is most of us are well adjusted and acclimated into conventional culture. I don’t want to be reduced to a series of stereotypes. The amount of talent and intelligence that goes into this music requires that we demand to be taken seriously as an art form. Perhaps, the film is speaking on behalf of the European and Nordic culture, which birthed the black metal scene and ethos as a direct counter culture to the religious power base. I can respect that.
Ultimately, heavy metal is just the primer to get at the heart of the film, which is how a family deals with loss. Whether you are a Metalhead or not, anyone in touch with their humanity will connect to the journey explored. Us actual Metalheads will appreciate the fact that someone finally decided to make a film that treated our beloved subculture with respect, nuance, and subtle attention to the details and history.
Metalhead is available now via VOD here.
In case you missed it, hear Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath reveal the bloody origins of heavy metal in this animated short.