Metal Evolution - "Shock Rock"

Metal Evolution - "Shock Rock"
Sam Dunn
VH1 Classic

All Access Review: A

Along with his similarly desensitized boyhood chums, a teenaged Sam Dunn took great delight in poring over the violent, gore-splattered imagery that bled all over the lyrics of death metal titans like Cannibal Corpse. The heavy metal-obsessed filmmaker waxes nostalgic for such warped innocence in his acclaimed documentary “A Headbanger’s Journey.” As someone with a strong stomach for such horrific scenes of human depravity and sick fantasies, it takes something truly frightening and unsettlingly dark to scare Dunn out of his wits. Des Moines, Iowa, mental ward escapees Slipknot had that effect on him.

On his way to the Midwest to interview Slipknot co-founder Shawn Crahan, otherwise known as Clown, during “Shock Rock,” the latest installment of his “Metal Evolution” series on VH-1, Dunn reveals how “terrified” of Slipknot he was the first time he saw them live. Intensely chaotic onstage, with an angry, relentlessly bleak nihilistic streak lyrically, Slipknot’s grotesque masks and matching uniforms, hellish growls, aggressive, multi-dimensional percussion and borderline psychotic stage shows make KISS seem cuddly by comparison. In fact, Monte Conner, A&R guy at Roadrunner Records, a regular on “Metal Evolution,” recounts how Clown would inhale deeply while holding a decomposing crow to his nose and breathe in all the evil and blackness that bird represented before shows. The stench often made him vomit, according to Conner, and sometimes, he would throw up in his mask and continue wearing it while playing whole concerts with that awful smelling spew in his face. Holy God, how do you top that?

The answer is … well, probably, you don’t. Although circus performer Danny Vomit, also interviewed for “Shock Rock” to provide commentary on how freak shows may have influenced shock-rock theatrics, cautions that somewhere some kid is dreaming up something even more appalling, it’s hard to imagine anything more assaulting to the senses than Slipknot or Marilyn Manson. Even the godfather of the genre, Alice Cooper, admits in the most recent episode of “Metal Evolution” that it’s probably impossible to shock anybody these days, and Rob Zombie concurs. And now that people are so anaesthetized to violence that we’ve gotten to the point where “Faces of Death” passes for entertainment, what’s left? Forget trying to shock people, says Cooper. That’s pretty impossible now. It all comes down to providing them an imaginative show, according to Cooper, who equates his own elaborately bloody stage show these days with Cirque du Soleil.

Dunn pretty much leaves it at that in what is quite possibly the best episode of the “Metal Evolution” series. “Shock Rock” has it all – controversy, a fascinating history, lively debate, and unflinching social commentary. There’s the gutsy Little Richard, strutting his gender-bending fashion sense and blatant homosexuality in the Deep South of the late 1950s, which earns the undying respect of one Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead. Next up is the campy horror show of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, complete with still shots of him arising from his coffin and vintage clips of him performing “I Put a Spell on You.” Perhaps more surprising, however, is how much crazy, manic footage there is of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown doing “Fire,” and Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickenson admitting to copping much of his onstage persona from Arthur, who emerged from the psychedelic safe house of Paris in the ‘60s with wild ideas about confrontational performance art and challenging music – all of which Brown, with a red stripe of makeup running across his face, discusses in great detail with Dunn. That connection that Dunn establishes between Brown and heavy metal is a fascinating one and Dunn displays a deft touch in making it. There’s nothing heavy-handed about his storytelling technique; he’s a natural when it comes to interviewing, and the editing work that he and partner Scott McFadyen, who co-directs and co-produces “Metal Evolution,” keeps everything flowing naturally.

Not forgotten in the story of “Shock Rock” are Alice Cooper and KISS, of course. The infamous chicken incident is dissected with Alice, who goes on to regale Dunn with rehashed tales of how the band was banned in certain countries and how the “bad” publicity they received actually served to increase the band’s popularity – all with the help of former band mates Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith. Whole books have been written about KISS’s makeup and the genesis of the band’s outrageous stage craft. Somehow, Dunn manages to squeeze all the essential information about KISS, as it relates to the subject at hand, while segueing into KISS’s gradual morphing from every parent’s nightmare into a somewhat more innocuous, family-oriented act that saw children arriving at shows made up as their favorite KISS character. While Criss bemoans the increasing commercialism that enveloped KISS, Frehley talks about having to tone down the sexual congress he used to perform with his guitar every night and reluctantly back off on his cursing. This is where things take a turn for the really, really weird.

With KISS having become sort of a kid-friendly cartoon, a shock-rock void developed. Nobody was testing the boundaries of good taste and social convention. Then along came Marilyn Manson. Taking on conservative Christian values with a fierce intelligence and a brutally tortured, gothic aesthetic that seemed to bring to life the inner workings of a serial killer’s scrambled mind, Manson and his deranged crew put on a stage show that was like some fascist S&M rally in a dystopian nightmare. When things got too real, though, as they did when responsibility for the Columbine massacre was placed squarely on Manson’s shoulders, this sinister creature went on MTV and took umbrage with the media for its ghoulish, uncaring coverage of the tragedy and the grief and sadness of those it affected the most. Interestingly, Manson’s one-time co-conspirator, Daisy Berkowitz, criticized Manson’s reaction, basically calling him out for being soft. That, combined with the bizarre, intensely personal stories of Clown and Slipknot, makes the second half of “Shock Rock” the most compelling television produced so far by Dunn.

“Shock Rock” alternates from lighthearted kitsch to serious debate on its effects on society and whether rock music could ever produce anything that could be considering “shocking” ever again. Again, it must be difficult to keep this train on the tracks, to maintain focus on the role “shock rock” plays in the evolution of heavy metal. And yet, Dunn does it, even while occasionally detouring into ancillary subject matter that would threaten to derail less talented filmmakers. Over and over, Dunn and McFadyen stitch together interviews, vintage live footage, still photography and any other ephemera he can get his hands to effortlessly tell a story that deserves this kind of exhaustive study. The world of heavy metal owes him a debt of gratitude.

Peter Lindblad

Metal Evolution - Shock Rock
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