Headbanging, academia meet in heavy-metal documentary
By Nichola Groom
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Six years ago, anthropologist Sam Dunn
made the unusual switch from studying Guatemalan refugees to
starring in his own film about long-haired, leather-clad,
To the 30-year-old Canadian, however, the jump made perfect
sense. After all, he’s been a die-hard fan of heavy metal music
since he was a teen-ager.
The result of his and co-director Scot McFadyen’s
5-1/2-year quest to explore what they call “the culture of
heavy metal” is “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” a documentary
that takes an anthropological look at the genre by exploring
its links with violence, sexuality and religion.
The film is scheduled to hit movie theaters in cities like
Los Angeles, Houston, and Salt Lake City in the coming weeks
and will be released on DVD at the end of May.
The film’s aim, according to Dunn and McFadyen, is to
explain why heavy metal, a style of rock music made popular by
bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Slayer and known for
heavy guitar riffs and controversial lyrics, has been maligned
by critics while its millions of fans across the globe have
been stereotyped as violent or Satanic.
Dunn, a long-haired, skinny redhead, serves as the film’s
narrator and main character, something he was initially
skittish about but found was true to the anthropological
practice of observing cultures through participation.
“You grow up as a metal fan, it’s the music that you love,”
Dunn said in a recent interview, adding that the film “forced
me to see (heavy metal) through a different lens than just as a
Indeed, Dunn’s mild, thoughtful manner as he travels to
heavy metal festivals and conducts interviews with his musical
idols appears to embody the film’s central message that heavy
metal fans are misunderstood by mainstream Western culture.
METAL MEN MISUNDERSTOOD
“There were always more fights at frat parties than metal
shows when I was growing up,” Dunn said. “Metal is about a
release. It’s a catharsis, it’s an emotional form of music, so
that is something that is just often overlooked.”
The film tracks heavy metal’s origins in the 1970s with
Black Sabbath and highlights several popular sub-genres through
interviews with metal icons like Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce
Dickinson as well as newer, underground stars like Angela
Gossow of Sweden’s Arch Enemy. Gossow is one of just a few
female metal singers who uses a low-pitched, guttural singing
style known as “death grunts.”
More importantly to Dunn and McFadyen, however, the film
explores heavy metal’s obsession with violence and religion. It
seeks to break down stereotypes that the filmmakers said have
lead to bans of heavy metal albums and lawsuits that accused
bands like Judas Priest and Slayer of driving fans to suicide
For the most part, the musicians and fans interviewed in
the film deny that the genre advocates Satanism or violence,
saying those themes are part of an act.
In one scene, Tom Araya, lead singer of the thrash metal
band Slayer, chuckles when asked about the title of the band’s
2001 album, “God Hates Us All,” saying the aim was to catch
In one of the film’s most dramatic chapters, however, Dunn
travels to Norway to explore the link between a heavy metal
sub-genre known as Norwegian black metal and a string of church
burnings in the early 1990s.
In an interview, black metal musician and convicted church
burner Jorn Tunsberg says he has no remorse for having burned
down a church even after serving prison time.
For their next project, the filmmakers are taking on “the
globalization of heavy metal,” according to McFadyen, and plan
to explore the genre’s popularity in places like Indonesia,
Brazil and Morocco.
But all of this is not taking Dunn away from his
anthropological roots: he plans to return to university in
Toronto for his PhD. The subject? Heavy metal, of course.