Musicians with a political message bear a heavy burden. They pursue justice through their music while running the risk of alienating segments of their audience. In Bob Dylan’s case, the pressure involved in being the beacon of a generation and its political zeitgeist led to a shift toward less overtly political themes in his music. Serj Tankian, the lead singer for the alternative metal band System of a Down and subject of the movie Truth to Power, has followed a path in both his life and music that has led him into ever closer contact with the burning core of political power.
Director Garin Hovannisian constructs Truth to Power into a complex rockumentary, a necessity given Tankian is a multifaceted individual. A beautiful yet knotty background shapes Tankian — his family is Armenian, he was born in Lebanon, and he grew up in the large Armenian diaspora of Los Angeles. Those of us who are part of a diaspora, Cuban in my case, can relate to the singer’s burden. We are divided between the home country of our parents and a new country that has shaped our youth. Tankian’s music oscillates between American and Armenian topics. His songs are critical of American domestic and foreign policy while also bringing Armenian history to rock fans. He takes on the responsibility of representing the Armenian diaspora and the monumental task of amplifying the hopes and frustrations of disaffected segments living within Armenia.
“Tankian…takes on the responsibility of representing the Armenian diaspora…”
The film masterfully combines the personal with the political. We learn of Tankian’s grandfather surviving the Armenian genocide, his family’s migration to Lebanon, and their eventual move to Los Angeles. We follow his journey from writing poetry while still an adolescent to being the keyboard player in an early band ( a crime given his very expressive voice ) to realizing that a legal career was not for him. His long winding road eventually led him to meet other Armenian-American musicians and form what eventually became System of a Down.
While scenes of the band playing in Yerevan to a sea of Armenian fans are inspiring, it is the small details in the journey toward stardom that make Hovannisian’s sophomore documentary effort such a compelling watch for fans. They are given delectable tidbits involving some of the lyrics for “Chop Suey” — the inspiration originating from guru producer Rick Rubin, of course — and stories of the band setting off on their touring boot-camp as the opening act for Slayer.
"…Tankian is an eternal seeker of different avenues of artistic expression."