[caption id="attachment_315172" align="aligncenter" width="615"] [Photo: Getty Images][/caption]Whether the topic is politics (with Michael Moore on the left, Dinesh D’Souza on the right), sports (ESPN’s 30 for 30 series), penguins marching (uh… March of the Penguins), or global warming ( 2006's An Inconvenient Truth), we are living in a golden age for documentary film-making. And fortunately for those of us who don't want to bum out on how bad things are all the time, for penguins and humans, the 21st century has seen a plethora of thrilling documentaries about some of hard rock and heavy metal's most important and iconic bands. However, great non-fiction metal films and hard rock docs have been taking us behind the walls of Marshall stacks and inside the wailing lives of metalheads for several decades now. Being that this is Oscars week, and VH1 Classic's new documentary tv series Rock Icons premieres this coming Saturday, what better time to take a look back now at 15 of the very best.
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The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years (1988)
Watch: Chris Holmes, live from his pool.
In 1981, director Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization electrifyingly chronicled the L.A. punk scene, filming bands such as Black Flag, X, and Fear during their brief-but-bright heyday of dominating L.A.’s music scene.
Spheeris then returned seven years later to reveal those same streets awash in hair mousse, leopard-print spandex, and Headbanger’s Ball hopefuls as glam metal had completely taken over the territory.
With deadpan brilliance, Decline II intercuts interviews with ambitious poodlehead musicians (such as the guy who guarantees success for his own flashy ensemble, Wet Cherri), groupies (like two fleshy sexpots in captain’s hats and wraparound shades who assure us, “All women are bisexual!”), club owners (Riki Rachtman and Bill Gazzarri make indelible impressions) and big-ticket superstars both on the rise (Poison, Vixen) and deeply entrenched (Ozzy, Kiss, Lemmy, Alice, Aerosmith).
The one scene for which Decline II is forever remembered, though, is a tragically uncomfortable interview with W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes while he bobs on a float in a backyard pool, insanely intoxicated. Slurring through descriptions of himself as hopeless, worthless, and alcoholic, Holmes caps the moment by dumping the contents of a vodka bottle over his head. Meanwhile, sitting a few feet away and looking understandably distressed, is Chris Holmes’s long-suffering mom. Fortunately he survived and is still around making more embarrassingly bad videos.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2003)
Watch: Metallica: Some Kind of Monster trailer
Metallica has not come by the title “the band most hated by its own fans” easily. Serious rumblings began in 1991 when the group transformed from hardcore thrash to commercial alt-metal with Metallica aka “The Black Album.” Then they cut their hair and delved deeper into mainstream rock with Load and Re-Load. That was followed by ugliness around fans downloading Metallica’s music via Napster.
Finally, Metallica inflamed even their staunchest defenders with the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, a simultaneously infuriating and mesmerizing chronicle of the recording of the group’s single most despised album, St. Anger.
The group brings in a Cosby-sweater-adorned “life coach” to talk them through their differences. Guitarist James Hetfield claims his addiction recovery enables him to work only scant and ludicrously specific hours. Drummer Lars Ulrich gloats over selling his multimillion-dollar modern art collection. Megadeth mastermind and original Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine sits down to discuss how the band brutally fired him in the early ’80s.
Witnessing Hetfield and Ulrich act like entitled jerks in Monster remains one of cinema’s supreme masochistic pleasures. The irony, however, is that once the smoke from Monster and Anger cleared, fans viewed through group with fresh affection. For the biggest hard rock band of all time to allow themselves to come off looking so petty and rotten only qualifies as brave. Some Kind of Monster humanized Metallica, and the years since have been good for all involved—both on-stage and in the pit.
Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005)
Watch: Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey trailer
Anthropologist and heavy metal fanatic Sam Dunn combines his life’s passions to combustive effect in Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey.
Accompanied by (off-camera) co-directors Sam Dunn and Jessica Joy Wise, Dunn travels the world and explores the entire scope of heavy metal from its ’60s hard rock origins, up through Black Sabbath and all they wrought in the ’70s, and then on to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, power metal, speed metal, glam, thrash, death metal, black metal, nü metal. You get the picture.
Dunn also makes sure you get the sounds, too, as well as insights from metal-makers on the order of Tony Iommi, Ronnie James Dio, Bruce Dickinson, Lemmy, Tom Araya, Randy Blyth, and numerous other superstars the movie expertly interviews.
Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and its 2008 follow-up Global Metal established Dunn and his Banger Films company as the reigning go-to documentary team of extreme hard rock. Numerous other Dunn efforts appear on this list (Iron Maiden: Flight 666, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, Super Duper Alice Cooper). Also be sure to check out Dunn’s brand new documentary series, VH1 Rock Icons, which premieres this Saturday, February 21st at 10/9C.
Anvil!: The Story of Anvil (2008)
Watch: Anvil!: The Story of Anvil trailer
Anvil spent the 1980s on the cusp of breaking through to heavy metal stardom. Anvil!: The Story of Anvil is the documentary that finally pushed the much-respected, once long-forgotten group over the edge to true metal icon status.
Led by enormously and instantly likable vocalist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner (a name that only confused some viewers who thought Anvil! might be a metal mockumentary homage to This Is Spinal Tap, which was directed by actor Rob Reiner), Anvil spends much of the movie flailing and failing to find that one last step that will set them on the comeback trail.
By the end, Kudlow, Reiner and company find their way, resulting in a powerfully moving final moment and a great, acclaimed documentary that delivered an overlooked ’80s group to getting its 21st century due.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986)
Watch: Heavy Metal Parking Lot
Heavy Metal Parking Lot consists of seventeen minutes of camcorder-shot headbanger high jinks during the tailgating pre-concert party outside a Judas Priest show in the D.C. area. It is pure, uncut heavy metal joy.
As an underground videotape that got passed around metal and punk circles in the VHS days, the endlessly quotable Heavy Metal Parking Lot spawned its own array of cult stars. There’s Graham who explains his name is “like a gram of dope.” There’s the shirtless David Lee Roth enthusiast who wears a Star of David pendant between his suspenders. A couple of cutely clueless female groupies who announce, in thick Baltimore accents, that if they were to meet Priest vocalist Rob Halford, they’d “jump his boo-ones.”
Finally, we come to Zebra Man. The verbose, feathery-mustached interview subject, named for his animal print ensemble, launches into one of cinema’s great freestyle diatribes, saying: “Heavy metal definitely rules! Twisted Sister, Judas Priest, Dokken. All that punk s—t sucks! It doesn’t belong in this world, it belongs on f-----g Mars, man! What the hell is punk s—t? And Madonna? Madonna can go to hell as far as I’m concerned. She’s a dick!”
Iron Maiden: Flight 666 (2009)
Watch: Iron Maiden: Flight 666 trailer
Iron Maiden: Flight 666 hops on board Ed Force One, the group’s private jumbo jet that’s actually piloted by frontman Bruce Dickinson, and follows along on the first leg of Iron Maiden’s 2008 worldwide tour.
Dickinson is a charming guide, but the movie’s real strength arises from the fans we meet along the way. Brazilian priest Marcus Motolo, for example, is covered with 162 Maiden tattoos and works the group’s music into his every sermon, earning him the nickname “Father Iron Maiden.”
The Brazil visit also introduces Bruno Ismael Zalandiuskas, a concertgoer who catches drummer Nicko McBrain’s tossed drumstick and, for 38 incredibly moving seconds, weeps uncontrollably, moved by how Iron Maiden’s music has enriched his entire life.
As the Palaces Burn (2014)
Watch: As the Palaces Burn trailer
A tragic mishap during a 2010 Lamb of God show in the Czech Republic resulted in a stage-diving teenage fan dying a couple of days after the concert. The Czech government then charged Lamb of God singer Randy Blyth with manslaughter, saying he pushed the fan off stage which led to the head injury that killed him.
As the Palaces Burns documents the remarkable Mr. Blyth and his outrageously courageous decision to return to Eastern Europe for a trial, after being released on bail, in hopes of clearing his name. Even if you know the final verdict going in, Palaces is tense, suspenseful, and superbly moving as it depicts a determinedly sober man heartbroken by the death of a young fan laying his own life on the line in pursuit of justice—both the heavy metal kind and otherwise.
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010)
Watch: Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage trailer
Everything anyone could ever want to know about Canada’s supreme prog-metal power trio Rush gets answered and expanded on by the group themselves in Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.
From their Libertarian politics and passion for science fiction to coming off as groupie-averse nerds while touring with Kiss to only growing more popular the weirder their records got to being longtime critical whipping boys to addressing the rapping skeleton in their “Roll the Bones” video, Rush laughingly and candidly lays it all out here.
Even normally interview-averse drummer and lyrical mastermind Neil Peart opens up. In fact, he addresses his reluctance to press flesh with admirers even more directly than he does in the song “Limelight.” Calling himself “the world’s biggest Who fan” as a kid, Peart adds “it never occurred to me to go knock on their hotel room door.” Remarkably, this statement comes off as reasonable rather than standoffish. That’s the power of both Rush and Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.
Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest (1992)
Watch: Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest
In an effectively no-frills manner, Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest lays out the facts of a 1990 trial centered on a double suicide attempt (only half of which was successful) five years earlier, the central issue of which was whether the teens involved were motivated by backward messages on a Judas Priest album.
The movie shockingly introduces James Vance, the survivor, by showing him smoking a cigarette. Vance blew off most of his face with a shotgun on the fateful evening when he and a pal were listening to Priest’s “Better by You, Better Than Me.” As a result, smoke emerges from numerous places on Vance’s head where it shouldn’t.
From there, Dream Deceivers delivers the trial straight-up, the highlight of which is Priest vocalist Rob Halford being ordered to hit high notes, a capella, on the witness stand. It would all be very funny, as the group members remind us, if one kid hadn’t killed himself and the other barely survived, only to die a few years later.
Last Days Here: Pentagram (2012)
Watch: Last Days Here: Pentagram trailer
Indisputably, Alexandria, VA cult rockers Pentagram were doom metal pioneers and have influenced the genre and countless bands. What’s up for debate is whether their legend is heightened or diminished by frontman Bobby Liebling—the group’s one consistent member—continuing to screw up in every conceivable manner and thereby keeping his music forever on the fringes.
The enthralling Last Days Here: Pentagram opens with long-time drug-and-alcohol enthusiast Liebling in horrifying condition. Skeletal, ghost-white, and virtually too weak to properly pivot his head on his neck, Liebling makes the immediate impression that there’s no possible way he’ll be alive by the end of the documentary.
Last Days Here, however, plays out Pentagram’s fascinating saga in all kinds of unexpected directions. Just when it seems to end with a triumphant comeback concert, Liebling delivers a final revelation that’s certainly awash with joy, but it also raises immediate questions along the lines of, “What is this maniac going to do next?”
Super Duper Alice Cooper (2014)
Watch: Super Duper Alice Cooper trailer
Alice Cooper is the godfather of heavy metal, punk, shock rock, glam, theatrical rock, and countless other cultural subgenres and offshoots that continue to emerge from his influence.
Super Duper Alice Cooper lovingly but unflinchingly traces the various rises and falls in the former Vincent Furnier’s career, from Frank Zappa protégé to Detroit rock brawler to global superstar to washed-up drunk, all within a decade.
The movie also takes us through Alice’s getting clean and coming back to endure as one of rock’s all-time most affable superstars—a guy with a giant snake around his neck who’s as at home flinging a live chicken into a crazed audience as he is singing a duet with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2007)
Watch: Heavy Metal in Baghdad trailer
The Vice-produced Heavy Metal in Baghdad goes behind “enemy” lines to capture the story of Acrassicauda, a metal power trio just trying to rock in Iraq around the time of the U.S.-led military ousting of dictator Saddam Hussein.
The band’s story is unique, to say the least, as is this guerilla-style documentary that’s literally shot in between bombings and under the constant threat of utter annihilation. Heavy Metal in Baghdad stands as one of cinema’s most fearless and unblinking depictions of life during wartime, as well as a testament to the power of metal to inspire human hope and perseverance. The final “f-you” moment packs one hell of a wallop.
Watch: Lemmy trailer
Note that there is no subtitle on the documentary, Lemmy. None is necessary. Motörhead’s towering frontman needs no introduction, nor any explanation. Like Elvis, Lemmy’s single name says it all: here stands (and sings and sings and smokes and drinks and wails on the bass and ingests all manner of chemical quickening agents) the living embodiment of rock-and-roll.
Lemmy, the movie, takes us deep into the icon’s personal, day-to-day reality, starting with his Sunset Strip apartment that’s stunningly decorated with World War II paraphernalia (and not from the winning side), then making it to the Roxy and the Rainbow, where Lemmy happily greets fans all day and night while puffing Marlboro reds, downing Jack Daniel’s, and having a go at his favorite bar-top video trivia game.
Testimonies to Lemmy throughout his reign from space-rockers Hawkwind to Motörhead’s triumphant smashing together of metal and punk come from Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Slash, Joan Jett, Metallica, Marky Ramone, Ice-T, Joe Strummer of the Clash, and Captain Sensible of the Damned.
One real treat is that the documentary brings us up to date with Stacia, Hawkwind’s gloriously top-heavy nude dancer now turned sassy hard rock matriarch. Another is the revelation of Lemmy as a loving, humble father, who only discovered he had a son after the kid had grown up. Pop and offspring are shown to have been tight ever since.
Get Thrashed: The Story of Thrash Metal (2006)
Watch: Get Thrashed: The Story of Thrash Metal trailer
While much is routinely made of thrash metal’s “Big Four”—Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax—Get Thrashed effectively expands that number to a “Big Five” by correctly and thoroughly adding Bay Area metal masters Exodus as pioneers on par with their (right or wrong) more famous peers.
That’s just one pleasure of Get Thrashed. Others come by way of the passion displayed by director Rick Ernst, an MTV producer who worked his way up from being a Headbanger’s Ball intern. Ernst spent seven years making Get Thrashed and his patience and persistence paid off.
The movie features key players from every major thrash combo of the era, openly and happily talking about what went into the music, the scenes it inspired worldwide, and the movements that continue to arise from thrash’s legacy.
Slow Southern Steel (2010)
Watch: Slow Southern Steel trailer
Epic and intimate at the same time, Slow Southern Steel shifts the overwhelming rock journalism focus on heavy metal’s roots in England, L.A., and San Francisco to long-running and freshly explosive metal scenes throughout the United States’ deep south.
Narrated by Dixie Dave Collins of Buzz*oven and Weedeater, Slow Southern Steel interviews dozens upon dozens of down-home hard-and-heavy musicians, from top-tier hellraisers on the order of metal mavens Phil Anselmo (who says, “Let me put it this way: I only want to die in the South”) and Pepper Keenan, along with outlaw country scion Hank III, plus members of Lamb of God, EyeHateGod, Kylesa, Torche, Dark Castle, Sourvein, Zoroaster, Royal Thunder, and more.
It gets plenty hot down there.