Heavy metal isn’t only for blasting out of the speakers to annoy your neighbours, or for sitting around listening in your basement wearing corpse paint as you plot a church burning or a night of smoking cigarettes in a cemetery. Throughout the years, cinema has given us some delightful gems featuring bands and fans of our beloved genre thrust into a variety of situations — often hilarious, horrifying, or both. For the most part, they satirize the genre and its stereotypes, and they do so out of love and affection; but there has been occasions where the heavy metal movie has transcended niche realms to be met with widespread acclaim. Most of them are funny though; loving odes which both rip on the genre and pay homage to it simultaneously. (Besides, if we can’t laugh at ourselves and how silly we look wearing our leather, what can we laugh at?) But we’ll look at all types, and as this series will show, heavy metal and cinema have been inextricably linked throughout the years. So whether you like spoofs, biopics, horror, drama, cult comedy or more, we’ll show you that there’s a heavy metal movie for all cinematic taste buds.
But before we can talk about metal, we gotta talk about jazz first. When discussing the history of heavy metal music, jazz cannot be ignored, and I highly recommend checking out our Jazz Club series for a deeper exploration of this exact topic. The same can be said for the heavy metal movie, as it was with Alex Crosland’s 1927 The Jazz Singer that paved the way for films about music to exist in general – and movies with synchronized sound for matter, as it ushered in the era of ‘talkie’ cinema. Telling the story of a Jewish man who runs away from home against the wishes of his strict family to pursue a singing career is the age old tale of chasing a dream, only for real life demands to make said dream difficult to attain. Like all types of cinema, the heavy metal sub-genre varies and sometimes music isn’t even the focal point of it. However, as we’ll discover through this series, sometimes metalheads are dreamchasers too.
As we pointed out, jazz played an integral part in the creation of metal, and so did rock n’ roll. During the ‘50s, the rebellious spirit of rock n’ roll music was possessing adolescents and young adults, with Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers among some of the groundbreaking artists ushering in an age of awesome music. This same rebellious spirit was transposed in cinema at the time as well, with rock n’ roll’s ethos intersecting with Hollywood’s desire to make movies that were culturally relevant. As such, the rock n’ roll movie was born.
They usually involved plots which explored the generational gap between the youth who just wanted rock and adults who didn’t approve of such edgy music. Some of the earliest rock films were jukebox musicals, which had been around since the late ‘30s, though they found their rockin’ groove in the ‘50s with films like Rock, Rock, Rock (1956), which tells the story of a young teenage girl (played by Tuesday Weld) who desperately tries to earn money to buy a dress for a school rock n’ roll dance. The film features performances from the likes of Chuck Berry, The Teenagers, The Flamingos and other artists from that era, and it typifies these types of films to a tee. That same year saw the release of Fred F. Sears’ Don’t Knock the Rock, which tells the story of a DJ who must convince parents that the rock they knock won’t turn their kids into troublemakers. As we’ll discover with metal movies, plots featuring themes of juvenile delinquency being connected to misunderstood music has crept up from time to time. The ‘50s were full of movies like this – with Jailhouse Rock (1957), starring Elvis as ex-con who becomes a rocker being the most famous – and they carried over into the next decade.
The 1960s in music was famous for a certain phenomenon that swept the Western world like a sex hurricane: Beatlemania. People really loved the Fab Four. Their record sales and subsequent legacy speaks for itself to this day, but they were also successful film stars, releasing a slew of films beginning with A Hard Day’s Night (1964) during the ‘60s to some impressive box office takings and some critical acclaim. Other notable films to be released during this decade were It’s Trad, Dad (1962), about a young couple who want to introduce trad jazz to their hometown only for the adults to vehemently oppose it. Like the films established in the ‘50s, the ‘60s contained many films reflective of the rising rock n’ roll subculture among youth at the time, which is a theme that features heavily in metal flicks.
These movies paved the way for the metal movie, much like their featured music broke ground for metal to emerge from. As the ‘70s rode in, the rock n’ roll movie continued, though it started to get edgier as exploitation films were becoming popular. Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) is a prime example: written by legendary critic Roger Ebert, it tells the story of an all-girl rock band who make it big only to fall into the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll lifestyle. That same decade would also see the release of movies inspired by the music of The Who, the best being 1979s Quadrophenia. Furthermore, 1979 would also mark the release of Rock and Roll High School, about a group of teens who team up with The Ramones to combat their school’s oppressive regime. As for excellent trash, 1978 would see KISS take on a mad scientist in an amusement part, and the ridiculousness that ensues.
As you can see, cinema had yet to go full-on, balls to the wall heavy freaking metal until then. These movies merely laid the foundations, but it was only a matter of time before cinema featuring music and fans got louder. As we’ll explore in the next piece, the ‘80s would usher in some peak cinematic headbanging – especially following the outbreak of the Satanic Panic epidemic. It was an era that gave us some timeless cult classics, as well as some garbage which portrayed metalheads in an unflattering light. However, as we’ll discover, it was the apex of the metal movie, and it boasted more good than bad.