I’ll begin by saying that “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” is a fascinating, gripping documentary that brings comparisons to equally fascinating “Some Kind of Monster” to the forefront. The former is about a heavy metal band struggling under the worst of situations, while the latter is about a metal band comprised of pampered, whiny rockers who are well past their prime. Despite this comparison and praise, two things stand out to me as serious bones of contention.
The first is that the band the film is focused on, Acrassicauda, is said to be the only heavy metal band in Iraq to have ever recorded. I’m not so sure that is true, as I’m fairly positive I had a cassette compilation from the late ’80s/early ’90s of metal and punk from around the world that had a metal band from Iraq on it, and I do know that other metal bands from Iraq have come out and said, “We’ve been here all along, too.”
The other problem (and this is not the fault of the filmmakers) is that early on in the film the band is interviewed about one of its first shows. The members were told they could only play a show if they did a song that was for/about Saddam Hussein (this was back when Hussein was in power). The band decided to do it and came up with a song about following their leader to victory. It’s a sad moment not only for the band, but also for heavy metal — a music with deep roots in rebellion and a distrust and disrespect of authority. I understand that Acrassicauda declares the song to be a lie, and that if the band didn’t sing it the performance could have been stopped and the members possibly jailed, but what kind of message does that send? Of course, it’s easy for me to say that. When I had a band (JFK’s Head, for those keeping score), I was never told I had to do a pro-president song, but I’m sure if we were given that order we would have said, “F**k you.” I also can’t help but think of what young fans of the band must have thought when they heard that song performed. Credibility means everything, and once you lose it, restoring it is an uphill battle.
Those are two minor complaints, however. The rest of the film is nothing short of spellbinding.
The documentary follows the career of Acrassicauda from its days living under Saddam to much darker days living under an iron fist of “democracy” American invasion style. That’s when the documentary takes a sharp turn into the land of terror. The filmmakers wear bullet proof vests and risk their very lives to find out what happened to the band members since Baghdad became Hell on Earth. The answer is both good and bad. They are alive, but disbanded, and the rest of the film chronicles their subsequent rise and fall. (And for all you metal heads who are curious, yes these guys are good.)
Heavy metal, like punk, is music where the ultimate message is unity. We are outsiders, and we are in this together. To see something like this come out of Iraq is uplifting and powerful. To see it jeopardized due to a government’s actions is par for the course and ultimately depressing. One thing is certain, though: This documentary can’t be dismissed as a mere film about music. It’s about struggle, the concepts of freedom, the harsh realities of war, the world of domination versus liberation, and the sacrifices one must make for art. If you see a better documentary this year, I’d be interested to know about it, as this one will be hard to match.