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Howl of the Underdogs

By Ray Lobo | September 27, 2022

If music is the language of emotion set to time, then metal is the ultimate example. The Norwegian metal band Madder Mortem is the subject of director Randy M. Salo’s Howl of the Underdogs. The documentary captures the band as they attempt a reunion concert celebrating their debut album’s twentieth anniversary. Throughout its runtime, the film gives the uninitiated insight into the personal struggles of the band members Agnete Mangnes Kirkevaag, BP M. Kirkevaag, Mads Solås, Tormod Langøien Moseng, and Anders Langberg, how those struggles inspire their music, and how Norwegian culture shapes nearly every aspect of the band.

Vocalist Agnete Mangnes Kirkevaag heads Madder Mortem. Kirkevaagg’s voice is the element that gives Madder Mortem’s metal sound a melodic and soulful edge. She is the kernel of humanity and frailty contained inside the group’s harder guitar and drum shell. Her childhood was one of idyllic joy growing up in the small town of Nord Odal. However, once she began school, things changed. Kirkevaagg was made aware of her weight, which made her internalize a negative self-image. An eating disorder quickly followed. Throughout Howl of the Underdogs, we are made increasingly aware of the monumental pain she endures. Imagine the psychological pain of self-criticism due to weight and add to that the lack of mental clarity produced by hunger. Oh wait, there’s more. As the vocalist and face of Madder Mortem, Kirkevaagg’s looks are front and center when it comes to promoting the band.

For anyone who doubts the extra pressure imposed on women in the rock world, just read music magazines from the 1990s or the early 2000s. The misogyny and focus on women’s bodies are sickening and ubiquitous. One does not even have to go decades into the past for proof of the extra pressure exerted on women in the rock world. Some of the comments regarding Kirkevaagg’s looks on social media make you lose all faith in humanity’s inherent goodness. In a particularly devastating scene, she wonders out loud if her looks may not have cost the band more fame and money.

“…they attempt a reunion concert celebrating their debut album’s twentieth anniversary.”

But, she’s not the only individual in the band who suffers. Drummer Solås is going through a personal struggle at the time of filming that makes him doubt whether he will be able to perform in the anniversary concert. It becomes abundantly clear that Madder Mortem is not just a musical project but also a channel by which every band member is afforded a cathartic release for painful emotions.

Unfortunately, Salo never achieves what a good music documentary should. He does not highlight the significance of the band and their music in relation to the genre or music history. In other words, Howl of the Underdogs did not make me want to run and listen to Madder Mortem’s music after the credits rolled.

However, where the film succeeds is in contextualizing the country’s culture. We learn about the role of Norwegian folktales and how they are a medium for anchoring morality. At its most informative and fascinating, the film gives insight into The Law of Jante and how it has shaped the culture there. According to the Law, it is discouraged for anyone to flaunt their individuality and success. Additionally, one should not think that their personal feelings or issues are more important than those of others. In short, one should remain as quiet and inconspicuous as possible.

Such a law obviously puts artists, in this case, the members of Madder Mortem, in a tricky position. The band’s lyrics offer a profusion of emotion and oversharing within a culture that has traditionally emphasized communal harmony. Howl of the Underdogs may have benefited from a deeper exploration of this tension.

Howl of the Underdogs (2022)

Directed and Written: Randy M. Salo

Starring: Agnete Mangnes Kirkevaag, BP M. Kirkevaag, Mads Solås, Tormod Langøien Moseng, Anders Langberg, etc.

Movie score: 5.5/10

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"…succeeds is in contextualizing the country's culture."

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