Was it all a dream?
Thirteen years ago, I sat across from rock legend James Hetfield. He was my idol, a man whose music I had worshipped, promoted, and followed for most of my adolescence. His band, Metallica, had taken a musical shotgun to the world and forever blown the cobwebs off speakers and amplifiers everywhere. And this occasion wasn’t just some backstage autograph session or radio-sponsored “meet and greet.” This was at his home, perched highest on a Novato, California hill surrounded by other well-to-do Marin County inhabitants. A white pickup truck filled his driveway. After I sheepishly knocked on his door, the Metal God appeared wearing a baseball cap inscribed, “Ducks Unlimited” (he was a member).
“Did you get lost?” he laughed, holding a bottle of beer. (I was late.)
Hetfield provided a brief tour of his spacious home, which gave off vibes of a rustic hunting lodge. Mounted trophy heads accented an entryway. He pointed out some weight machines and punching bag filling a new fitness room. His wife was in the kitchen, cooking and watching “Star Wars.” Surprisingly, few Metallica-related items were on display anywhere. The iconic frontman had agreed to speak with me for a Metallica book project. Amidst the animal pelts, we sipped booze and discussed the lengthy, turbulent history of Hetfield’s influential band.
Now, if the above story means nothing to you, maybe Sam Dunn’s documentary (which he co-directed alongside Scot McFaden and Jessica Joy Wise), “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” won’t do it for you either. But if you’ve ever wanted to meet a musical hero – and had the opportunity come to fruition – you’ll identify with the “hair-stands-up-on-the-back-of-my-neck” enthusiasm Dunn radiates when rubbing shoulders with his face-melting heroes. He crosses medieval swords with elf-sized, iron-lunged singer Ronnie James Dio. He interviews Iron Maiden screamer Bruce Dickinson from the stage of England’s Hammersmith Odeon. He follows Tony Iommi through an ivy-covered domestic fortress to gab about the guitarist’s revolutionary role in Black Sabbath. And Dunn is clearly having a ball.
We live in an age of cynicism. Enthusiasm is un-hip, and happiness is passé. Jack Black’s “School of Rock” antihero Dewey Finn discovered this after being booted from a band for “too many guitar solos and stage dives.” The self-conscious song remains the same: show too much unbridled passion for life, and be denounced as uncool. But Dunn could clearly give a s**t. Armed with both shoulder-length headbanger hair and a Master’s Degree in Anthropology, Dunn is to metal what Morgan Spurlock (“Super-Size Me”) is to fast food foes. He’s the face of “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” guiding us through mosh pits, across concert stages, and into the homes of his sonic subjects. The filmmaker admits that he took up anthropology in school because “there was no major in metal.” And like heartland-raised, “Fargo Rock City” scribe Chuck Klosterman (who appears in the film), Dunn is no preening, American Idol fashion plate. With the haunted, hollow eyes and gangly physique of “Rocky Horror”’s Riff Raff, he appears a real heavy metal everyman.
This integrity – and believability – is key to the success of “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey.” With written and filmic memoirs currently entering a kind of “integrity limbo” while their factuality comes into question (Oprah versus James Frey), Dunn leaves no question that he did, in fact, play air-guitar to every Iron Maiden riff on “Number of the Beast.”
Dunn’s anthropology chops come in handy during a featured breakdown of metal’s various sub-genres. We’re educated to the differences between power metal, thrash metal, techno metal, glam metal, and so fourth… before our descent into the hell of Norwegian Black Metal. Here, we meet Christianity-hating church-burners and musicians from Gorgoroth who drink wine from goblets and cite Satan as their inspiration.
Meanwhile, thrasher-come-narrator Dunn also generates plenty of humor to offset all of the dour, grimacing faces staring from beneath Gene Simmons face paint and stage blood. He goes to the granddaddy of shock rock, Alice Cooper, for giggles. The “School’s Out” singer snickers about how much he loves to tour Norway and pick up black metal magazines, where each consecutive band promo shot becomes more over-the-top. Extremities are cocooned in leather while inverted crosses, animal skulls and pentagrams clutter the periphery. Cooper, who invented this “evil” imagery in the early seventies but never forgot to inject some comedy into the mix, recalls these doom-laden devil worshippers approaching him in shopping malls. “I thought you guys were Satanists,” he would ask. “Oh, yeah,” the demonic hell-serpents would respond, with mothers/transit providers in tow, “but could we still have your autograph, Mr. Cooper?”
Dunn also confronts the drunken black metal band Mayhem at Germany’s massive, 40,000-strong Wacken Open Air Festival, a concert-carnival awash in shirt vendors, booze-peddlers, and tent-campers. When asked if they thought that extreme metal was scoffed at by some, the group responds, “F**k them – and f**k you!” Slinking away shell-shocked and shaking his hairy head, Dunn concludes that beer and interviews are a bad combination.
Despite these strange exceptions, Dunn effortlessly smashes the cliché of metal-bands-as-Neanderthal-lunkheads. Surprisingly, most of the celebrity musicians in “Metal” are remarkably honest and articulate. Rob Zombie talks about growing up as the “strange kid” in school, more interested in Charles Manson than sports. Ronnie James Dio explains the origins of his infamous “devil’s horn” hand sign, clarifying that the gesture had Italian cultural origins, used by his grandmother to ward off the “evil eye.” One-time Twister Sister vocalist Dee Snider (who also testified on behalf of rock music during the U.S Senate’s 1985 PMRC hearings) gives a candid summary of the confused, gender-bending cauldron of metal men either cross-dressing like women or strutting like roosters in heat. “A doctor should really look into this,” he laughs. I would trust any of these unpretentious dudes to baby-sit my kids (although my Joan Baez-loving wife begs to differ). Their humanity and sincere, carpe diem attitudes are refreshing.
I wanted to call my first fanzine “Skullcrushing Audio Death.” I’ve housed a starving, pre-major label deal Slayer in my parents’ basement, gone albacore fishing with Metal Church, sold t-shirts for Yngwie Malmsteen, and helmed fan clubs for Metallica. I can attest to Dunn’s sincerity. He’s a real thrashing, stage-diving, facemelting Whiplash Man, and “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” is a must-see for wrathchilds, earth dogs, rivetheads, and other purveyors of sonic decapitation. As for the rest of you, Dunn’s final onscreen words say it all: “We’re doing just fine without you.”
In addition to being a longtime contributor to FILM THREAT, KJ Doughton is also the author of 1993’s “Metallica Unbound” (Warner Books).