Black metal is just funny.
I don't say that to be disparaging. Most metal fans I know, anyway, acknowledge the inherent ridiculousness of the genre’s tendency to take itself (and its imagery) a little too seriously. The music’s a different ballgame, and can exist independently, but the culture? Hilarious.
This year sees the release of two very different films about black metal: Lords of Chaos, a true-story dramatisation, and Heavy Trip, an out-and-out farce. Both are extremely engaging films, and both very funny, but only one of them features the use of a reindeer-butchering machine as a musical instrument. Welcome to “symphonic post-apocalyptic reindeer-grinding Christ-abusing extreme war pagan Fennoscandian metal."
Heavy Trip follows the rise to notoriety of a fictional black metal band, and the lengths they’ll go to to play at Norway’s biggest metal festival. This group of four small-town dudes is pretty sad as far as rockstars go - they don’t even compete with the local lounge lizard. Bullied band leader Turo works as an orderly in a mental institution. Guitarist Lotvonen is an employee of his parents’ reindeer farm. Bassist and librarian Pasi is a living personification of the black metal ethos, possessed of a photographic memory and a deep, abiding sadness. Together, they are: Impaled Rektum.
These guys have a lot of passion, but little courage, as evidenced by having played together for over a decade without doing a single public show. It’s only when they happen across a guitar riff inspired by the aforementioned butchery machine - and get noticed by a concert promoter - that things take a turn. Suddenly, they’re the talk of their sleepy town, and must face their crippling stagefright to achieve the fame they crave. But that becomes all the more difficult once they realise their festival booking was a misunderstanding - and must deal with a town whose hopes they had raised in vain.
Heavy Trip derives much of its entertainment value from knowing, loving jobs at black metal’s history and conventions. Jokes about medieval costumes and song titles are easy enough, but Heavy Trip goes to greater lengths than that. Many films have played with the disconnect between bands’ public images and their more ordinary private lives, but this band’s shoestring budget leads to some of the best of its many gags. Pasi's escalating metal accoutrement, the none-more-black process of devising the band’s name, the group’s creative use of a traffic camera for an official band photo - it’s all gold, supported by strong character work from its cast.
As is typical for this borderline Christopher Guest-esque look at a musical genre, Heavy Trip is also endowed with significant heart. These guys might not be the most comprehensively shining examples of humanity, but by the end of the film we grow to love them all the same. They're weird, they’re socially awkward, they love what they do, and they projectile vomit when under pressure. Who can't relate to that?
Impaled Rektum go on a surprisingly epic adventure in their quest for their mythical headline gig. They face off against the law, survive numerous brushes with death, have a run-in with Vikings, and almost start an honest-to-god war. In a twist more metal than metal, they’re even joined by a violent patient from Turo’s hospital, whose inner rage can only be calmed by black metal music, and who turns out to be the best damn drummer they've ever seen. As is noted in the film, that's “one fuck of a metal attitude,” and though Heavy Trip is a parody of the genre, it is also extremely metal itself, never scornful of its subject matter.
Heavy Trip ought to appeal to a wider audience than Lords of Chaos, as the bar for entry in terms of prior knowledge (and stomach fortitude) is much lower. It’s also just a likeable story: we end up cheering for these weirdos and rooting for their success. Like an underdog sports movie where the sport is black metal, or a remake of Lords by the New Kids Turbo team, Heavy Trip is a mountain of fun. Hail Satan, etc.