Sam Dunn & Scot McFadyen’s ‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey’ (2005)

29Nov09

Sam Dunn desperately wants heavy metal to be taken seriously.

Growing up as a metalhead, Dunn has spent years defending the legitimacy of his favorite genre of music. Metal is simply his argument expanded (or maybe condensed) to 96 minutes. Though giving a slight focus to metal culture, Dunn and his co-writer/director Scot McFadyen tackle the subject of heavy metal in its entirety. They give an overview of the evolution of metal, look at common lyrical themes, explore gender (a.k.a. sexism) and sexuality, and address metal’s history of censorship, just to name a few of the larger subjects of interest.

I think Dunn and McFadyen spread themselves a little too thin with the amount of material they choose to cover. Several of the topics feel underdeveloped, particularly gender and sexuality. In regards to women and the machismo of metal culture, I felt as though Dunn and McFadyen had simply stopped when they found an interviewee with an opinion that matched their own. I wish they had explored women as metal fans rather than just groupies, and I wish that they had interviewed a female academic who would never use the phrase, “It sounds sexist, but….”

I don’t mean to insinuate that Dunn only looks at metal through rose-colored glasses. He particularly finds fault with the Scandinavian metal bands who burned churches and can only answer questions about their music with the phrase, “Fuck you!” However, I do feel as though Dunn’s affection for his subject matter does affect his ability to answer a lot of the criticisms directed at metal and particularly metal culture.

While I by no means intend to challenge its legitimacy as a musical genre, aspects of metal and its surrounding fan culture do annoy me, which this documentary did nothing to allay. I’ve always felt as though much, though of course not all, heavy metal comes from a place of suspended male adolescence. Metal bands write lyrics about death and satanism and choose album artwork featuring blood and violence to shock people for just shock value’s sake rather than actually challenge or question. They have to play louder, harder, faster than the last group just because they can, and to anyone who doesn’t “get” what they’re trying to do, they simply say “Fuck you.” Heavy metal artists need to move beyond this bullshit macho posturing for me to take them seriously, and unfortunately very few do.

I never felt like Dunn really answered his research question: why does metal continue to garner a strident fanbase while receiving mostly disdain from critics? For myself, I think that a lot of metal’s appeal has to do with the way it sounds. It’s loud, aggressive, and often difficult to listen to, and many people ā€“ adults in particular ā€“ find it obnoxious, which makes it appealing to adolescents rebelling against their authoritarian parents and to people on the fringe who wish to distance themselves from “the mainstream” for whatever reason. Metal culture also has very obvious clothing and values associated with it, which makes it easily accessible to people looking for community, but there’s an otherness to metal culture, making it a community for people who lack or would even claim to dislike community.

Metal provides an interesting look at heavy metal for people outside its fanbase, but ultimately it feels like a starter kit. I would be interested for other documentarians, or even Dunn and McFadyen, to pick up pieces of this project and really take an in-depth look at aspects of heavy metal culture.

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One Response to “Sam Dunn & Scot McFadyen’s ‘Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey’ (2005)”

  1. 1 Coons

    While I don’t totally agree with your assessment, make sure you check out the sequel, Global Metal. A Headbanger’s Journey was ambitious and did bite off more than it can chew, but keep in mind, Metal is one of the most diverse and widespread genres in existence. You could do 3 hour documentaries on each sub-genre, or each of the sections of his documentary, and still be left with questions.

    Your focus on Metal stemming from a suspended male adolescence is at times correct, but overall not. Only certain sub-genres take that attitude, just like how only certain sub-genres talk about death or satanism. Some of that is for shock value, in the same way any Horror movie is to made to shock and scare. Sometimes however, the meaning goes much deeper.

    Honestly, Metal isn’t for casual music listeners, it’s a devotion, at times an obsession. At first listen, it may sound like noise and screaming, but over time you begin to realize the intelligence and passion that makes Metal and you can find beauty and serenity. There are exceptions to this, and plenty of bands and fans are around just to tell people to “Fuck off” or to “Fuck shit up.” But the majority aren’t.

    Good post and good blog šŸ™‚


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