One of the biggest misconceptions about rock and metal fans is that we’re all dreamer slackers with daydreams of musical superstardom. However, in the 90s, that didn’t stop Hollywood from churning out a slew of comedies which adhered to this notion. That said, the history of heavy movies is beleaguered by stereotypes anyway, so why should the 90s have been any different? The good news is that the decade did produce some hilarious efforts – a few of which went on to become cult classics – and that’s all that matters. Hollywood assumptions about subcultures aside, at least the cinema itself was entertaining.
The first notable heavy movie of the decade was Mark Freed’s horror yarn, Shock ‘Em Dead (1990). Adapting the classic Faustian tale of a man who sells his soul for personal gain and giving it some metallic sheen, the movie tells the story of a loser who must kill on behalf of a voodoo priestess as part of a deal he made for rock stardom. The film isn’t good by conventional standards, nor does it possess the charm of the metal movies from the 80s; but it’s an entertaining 90 minutes of tunes, sex and death, and sometimes that’s all we need in this life.
The next year would also see the release of The Doors, starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. That film enjoyed more critical acclaim and commercial success than Shock ‘Em Dead, even though it fell just short of expectations as it failed to make its budget back upon theatrical release and received a lukewarm reception from audiences. It’s one of the better films in Oliver Stone’s filmography and is worth seeing at least once if you’re a fan of the band or biographies in general. However, the defining heavy movie of 1991 was Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, a sequel to the 1989 film about the two time-travelling slackers played by Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. The second installment saw our heroes outwit the Grim Reaper to get back to the mortal world after falling foul to their evil android clones.
The early 90s saw Seattle grunge music break into mainstream pop culture, spearheaded by the popularity of Nirvana’s Nevermind album in 1991. Then, one year later, the emerging American grunge culture featured in the unlikeliest of places – a romantic comedy. Of course, Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992) isn’t your typical romantic comedy, and even if your musical tastes are far removed from grunge, the film will undoubtedly resonate with most people who have experienced soul searching in their young adult years. Starring Bridget Fonda and Campbell Scott, the film tells the story of a group of twenty-somethings living in the capital of grunge as they search for love, success and meaning in an apartment complex. Minus the dirty rocker aesthetic, Singles would inspire the hit sitcom Friends, which is arguably the TV show that defined the decade. The themes were similar, and while Friends perhaps offered more in the way of traditional laughs, both featured characters of similar ages living in the city as they sought purpose and romance. Cameron’s love of rock would go on to inform his other masterpiece: Almost Famous (2000), which tells the story of a teenage journalist who goes on the road with a tumultuous rock n’ roll band in 1973 only to fall in love, have his heart broken, and come of age. No other director has been able to blend music and cinema together in a way that’s exceptionally funny and profoundly human than Cameron Crowe has, and both of these films are a testament to his brilliance.
As incredible and successful a film as Cameron Crowe’s Singles is, it wasn’t the most notable heavy movie released that year. Continuing the tradition of the slacker comedies about loveable rogues set in motion by the Bill and Ted epics, Wayne’s World (1992) is as good as cinema gets. Telling the story of two friends who struggle to keep control over their public access cable show when corporate bigwigs get involved, what transpires is a story of love and rebellion as our titular Wayne (Mike Myers) and his pal, Garth (Dana Carvey), our hapless heroes stand up to a sleazy advertiser so Wayne can get the girl and restore his pride. A sequel followed one year later, which saw our heroes try to book the ultimate music festival… without much luck, of course. Fuelled by the belief of “if you book them, they will come’’, the slacker duo must organise an event and fight off a record producer who wants to steal Wayne’s girlfriend.
In 1994, the slacker comedy tradition continued with heavy heist film, Airheads. Starring Brendan Fraser, Adam Sandler and Steve Buscemi as a struggling band who break into a radio station and hold it up with fake guns just so the DJ will play their demo, Airheads is one of the most criminally underrated films to come out of the 90s in general, let alone just in terms of rock comedies. The funny thing about this movie is that Adam Sandler’s character is bit-part compared to the other two, as he would go on to find massive success later starring in shit – a lot of which starred Buscemi in cameo appearances (Adam’s 90s output is pretty incredible though, to be fair). Sandler would play a metal slacker once again in Little Nicky (2001), this time with a devilish twist. In that film, the story chronicles the journey of the heavy metal-loving son of Satan as he visits Earth to bring his more powerful brothers back to Hell via a demonic flask. Little Nicky is a reminder that, many moons ago, Sandler was capable of making us laugh.
In 1999, the world was coming close to its next millennium. But there was still time to squeeze in a final heavy slacker comedy. Detroit Rock City, directed by the highly underrated Adam Rifkin, follows the story of a group of rebellious teenagers in the 70s as they embark on an adventure to get into a KISS concert. However, with one of them grounded due to his mother’s anti-rock beliefs and every obstacle possible getting in their way, they must defy the odds if they’re going to be in the presence of their rock gods. Detroit Rock City is a love letter to KISS and a wonderful comedy peppered with predicaments for the heroes. It also closed out the decade by encapsulating everything that made heavy movies of the whole 10 years pretty incredible.
However, the post-millennium years have also treated us to some incredible cinema infused with the spirit of all that rocks – but we’ll have more on those next time.