The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) *****  Heavy metal and film are a natural match, integral as visual self-definition and showmanship are to the various musical styles and ways of life that fall under that broad banner.  In 1987 and 1988, filmmaker Penelope Spheeris was granted priceless access both to the towering figures and to the nameless nobodies, musicians and fans alike, who constituted the heavy metal subculture at its crest, resulting in one of the greatest music documentaries ever made.

Interweaving performance with interviews and footage of fans, The Metal Years is not only a treasure trove of source material, but a triumph of creative, witty, and meaningfully critical editing.  Interviewees range from titans like Ozzy and Steven Tyler to would-be stars and shabby groupies in varying degrees of candidness and spontaneity.  Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons are epigrammatic and more or less in character for the camera, while Bret Michaels and others are disarmingly chatty and almost come across as dweebs.  Others, particularly the members of Odin, merely come across as pitiably self-absorbed, delusional, mediocre, and doomed.  Also featured are peripheral figures like a sleazy old dance contest promoter and a judgmental “de-metaling” activist worried about the music’s insensitive attitude toward women.

Spheeris poses a number of interesting questions, both overtly and by implication over the course of the film.  For instance, what thought processes and meanings inform the songs?  Does rock godhood cause alcoholism?  Are rockers patronized by groupies afraid of catching AIDS?  Is rock the natural emanation of overpowering manhood, or are all of these guys just insecure?  Are they irritated or gratified when others take their ideas?  Is heavy metal as a profession a wise or even remotely plausible aspiration for all of the self-confident unknowns?  Are any of these people sane or healthy individuals?

On the latter score and with regard to alcoholism, Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. provides a fascinating case in point as Spheeris finds him lounging in his pool and drowning himself in liquor in front of his reticent mother.  Holmes at different points claims to be both happy and sad and calls himself “a piece of crap”.  Which is the truth?  Is Holmes putting on an act for the camera or is he really a tortured wreck?  Either way, his segment is one of the most memorable, and there’s something compellingly revolting or heroically abrasive about a man who calls himself a “motherfucker” in the presence of his own mother.

The tension between reality and rock phantasmagoria is sustained throughout The Metal Years.  How much of the story is theatre and how much is really lived – or do such distinctions exist for these people?  Almost omnipresent and acting as a theme or a character in The Metal Years is the smoke that filters the light in the bars, arenas, and dim rooms where these characters live their dreams and nightmares.  Is it stage fog, all just part of the show, or is everybody from Odin on up living in an illusory fug of their own unsavory exhalations?  Part of the joy of The Metal Years is its willingness to allow the viewer to draw for himself the necessary conclusions.

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