By Anna Arnman.
Så jävla metal (which translates as ‘So damned metal’) is a Swedish documentary about the nation’s heavy metal scene, from the early 1970s until now. It is based on hundreds of interviews with bands and performers like November, Neon Rose, Europe, Yngwie Malmsteen, Arch Enemy and In Flames. Sweden is one of the world’s leading producers of heavy metal, with superstars like the above-mentioned Europe and Yngwie Malmsteen well known to the big crowd, but also bands like Candlemass and Bathory that have established totally new subgenres. The director, Yasin Hillborg, is a former drummer of the Swedish death metal band Afflicted, active in the early 1990s. It took him five years to complete the film.
Watching these now, in many cases, aged heavy metal musicians and the people around them is rather fascinating. They have a real passion for their music and their story is told with that same passion for the hard, aggressive, heavy metal music, a genre that is totally dominated by men. This is perhaps first and foremost a film for those familiar with the genre and I sometimes miss the bigger picture or a more analytic approach to the subject. It maps the Swedish heavy metal scene and it does so in a thorough and often humoristic way. But it makes me wonder, why heavy metal? What is it about this specific music genre that is so special? It feels like you could have done the same film about almost any music genre; just ask a few questions to people from different bands, some reviewers and people around them. No one is really talking about why this specific genre appeals to their passions in the way it clearly does. You have to look outside the genre to understand what it consists of and what it stands for. That contextualization is what is lacking in this otherwise very amusing documentary.
For example, a lot of the bands came from the same Stockholm suburb, Upplands Väsby, and Hillborg is generous with showing us stills and documentary film clips from the 1970s and 1980s. Both Europe and Yngwie Malmsteen grew up here. I would like to have seen even more from this time and place to gain a better understanding of exactly what was going on, why this small community of some 30.000 inhabitants gave rise to such a wave of successful heavy metal musicians. What kind of a suburb was/is Upplands Väsby? Why heavy metal, right there and then?
I also would have liked to see more of what was going on in the music scene outside of heavy metal. There was, for instance, a clear subcultural division during the 1980s in Sweden, visible to anyone visiting, say, a contemporary secondary school, between heavy metal fans and those preferring electronic syntheziser based music of the kind often labeled New Romantics in Britain. And I would have liked to see heavy metal put in contrast to other genres as well, just to clarify what it really stands for.
A lot of the film is devoted to anecdotes of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, like the one about when Yngwie Malmsteen got angry on a complaining fellow passenger on his first class plane trip and threw a cup of his own piss in her face. One of the other band members recorded the whole incident on tape, which brings Malmsteen to comment that, though he has done many sick things in his life, nothing is sicker than actually recording a thing like this on a tape recorder.
The singer of Europe, Joey Tempest, says that the managers must have known what to expect when they let these youngster suddenly turned superstars out into the world on massive tours with all the hard drinking, drugs and girls constantly available. The kids simply couldn’t handle it, and so became the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll assholes that, perhaps, many expected them to become. The way they often talk about female fans and how to exploit them is depressing.
I also got curious about the various subgenres of heavy metal and how they are defined. It seems like a very big distinction is often made between the rather lightweight Europe and the really heavy black metal band Bathory, whilst at the same time they are bundled together in the same genre documentary. Hillborg and, perhaps, his intended audience of fans are so familiar with the genre that they probably don´t feel like they need detailed explanations or things put in a larger context. I am not so familiar with this music genre and would have liked to see things in a broader perspective. I would have liked to be offered a deeper understanding, beyond a simple demonstration of the artists love of this kind of music, of why, not just that, they love it. Why this and not something else? What is the appeal? What does heavy metal stand for, in comparison to other genres?
Still, the love for the music is also the films real strength. Even though these heavy metal men do what they can to be and look ‘cool’, they are really music nerds and it is inspiring to see people so passionate about what they do and love. It could have been Star Trek fans, birdwatchers or hip hop musicians; it is nerds who rule the world. So, the most important message for me after seeing Så jävla metal is – nerds all over the world unite!
Anna Arnman is a former editor-in-chief of Film International. She wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.