I tend to dislike documentaries about bands. They rarely hit the mark and often leave fans and band alike feeling cheated. The band don’t come across as they would wish and the fans don’t feel like they’ve had a proper insight into their heroes. There have been some fine examples over the years of bands revealing what a bunch of assholes they are on home videos. Pretentious egotism or dumb antics can leave a bad taste in the mouth next time you listen to your favourite album from their back catalogue. Either that or it is fairly dull live footage that fails to capture the real experience of being at a gig. So why would a band want to do their fourth DVD – and release it in movie theatres too?!
Well, Lamb Of God‘s last two video releases “Walk With Me In Hell” and “Killadelphia”, managed to bring a satisfying mix of well shot live footage with behind the scenes clips that got to the heart of the band and also provided an insight into the sometimes tumultuous relationship between Randy and the rest of the group.
So, when the opportunity arose to review Lamb Of God‘s first cinema release I jumped at the chance.
What makes this even more interesting (as becomes clear in the 30 minute Q&A with band and director which is being shown at the cinema screenings) was that the band wanted to turn the cameras away from themselves and onto the fans. Having put out plenty of concert material and interviews they thought it would be more worthwhile to focus on individual fans, what their lives are about and what the music means to them.
Little did the band, or indeed director Don Argott, realise as they embarked on this project how suddenly and tragically the cameras would be turned back onto the band and in particular onto enigmatic frontman David Randall Blythe.
The film opens in their hometown of Richmond, Virginia with the tranquility of the riverside providing a serene backdrop as Randy explains how music set him on this path because it meant so much to him. We see him as a music fan first and foremost which sets the scene nicely for the following montage of Lamb Of God fans relating how this band has played a part in their own lives.
With an eerie prescience, Randy comments that as he was growing up it was getting into music that pulled him away from delinquent influences and it was being in Lamb Of God that kept him out of jail. Of course, all the footage from the first portion of “As The Palaces Burn” was shot before any of the band knew about the tragedy that had befallen a fan in Prague some years earlier or the abrupt way it would halt their European tour in 2012.
And this is the cold irony, because the project was so clearly designed to be a dedication to their fans. The intent was to feature almost exclusively their fans, because Lamb Of God clearly have such love for them and still feel passionate about music the same way those of us who buy their records do.
There are plenty of snippets of frenetic live scenes of devoted and boisterous fans and, in any other context, the average metal fan will not bat an eyelid at the ferocity of these moshpits, but unlike the band the viewer knows what is coming next.
The skill in the way this film has been put together is apparent from the off. The subtle references here and there to the passion of the fans, the passion of the band and the power of the music strike such a chord with the viewer as we await the unfolding of the legal drama that is the crux of this film.
Little things here and there remind us that for all their stage presence, musical virtuosity and ferocious noise, these are five gentle souls who adore their families as well as making music. To see them in tour rehearsal, stripped down, trying to make sure they are tight and ready to take the stage, is wonderful in its simplicity – five guys jamming music they created together. It’s a charming sight to see guitarist Willie Adler with tissue in his ears acting as makeshift earplugs whilst they rattle through crowd favourites in a tiny rehearsal space.
There are then scenes of political violence from around the globe intercut with scenes of circle pits, neatly reminding us how the unrest in so many countries serves as a reason for a lot of fans to envelope themselves in the world of heavy metal to escape the bullshit and turmoil of their lives. For those of you reading this in the UK or the USA it serves as a reminder that our streets and our political systems are way safer and less corrupt than many around the world and we perhaps forget what it must be like for people in South America or the Middle East and how much the outlet and escapism of heavy metal can mean to them. Yet again, this film seeks to deliver a message way beyond “How awesome are Lamb Of God live?!” and that is what makes it so compelling.
At one point there is a clip of Randy stage diving, there is brief mention of friction within the band that came to the fore on previous tours and at the time you watch it his drunken antics may not seem that important a part of the story, but again, the director drops in a neat signpost for what will follow later.
And so to the main purpose of this film as it was intended – we visit Colombia on the “Resolution” tour and meet Oscar. Had the events in Prague not unfolded as they did I suspect we would have spent longer looking at some of the fans from around the world, but in any event the snapshot of the life of each of the fans featured is fascinating and informative. This taxi driver grew up in streets ruled by drug gangs and explains how aggressive music pulled him away from actual violence and helps him get through some tough days. He meets the band after the show and Randy casually asks if he got hurt in the moshpit. This is yet another illustration of the casual approach most metal fans take to the nature of metal gigs – if you go down the front there are risks involved. Easy for you or I to see, perhaps, but not so much to to the outside world. Unlike 99 percent of band documentaries I suspect this one will hold genuine interest for someone who isn’t into the band or metal in general, such is the inherent worth of the topic and the superb direction from Argott.
Further focus is placed on India and Israel as the tour continues. The unity provided by the music, the stories of different people from hugely different cultures all with the same common thread – a love for music and in particular Lamb Of God – pulls the viewer in and gives a glimpse into the connection people have with something that is more a way of life to them than merely a band they enjoy listening to.
At one point Randy talks about the atmosphere at the gigs and actually comments that sometimes he is worried about fans and moshpits getting out of control. Despite the earlier footage of his drunken antics, he remains a gentle, kind and thoughtful soul who shows even more of that side of his personality now he is clean and sober.
The film takes a turn that is all too unsurprising for the viewer but jarring for the band as they arrive in Prague and are all detained by armed police. It is here we are drawn even deeper into the drama thanks to the filmmaker’s subtle reminders throughout the first half of the movie as to what regular, peaceful, eloquent family guys they are and that they are not some bunch of hoodlums you would expect to see being arrested.
What is all the more shocking is how long ago it happened prior to the arrest and that the authorities made no attempt to contact the band or their representatives nearer the time of the tragic incident. It is apparent from the off that none of them even remember any incident, such is the nature of a show for so many bands in this genre. Who would recall a specific stage diver at a specific show two years ago when you tour the world for a living?!
In fairness, the Prague police may have suspected that tipping off the suspect would mean he wouldn’t return to face justice and hence the desire for a surprise arrest, but they clearly didn’t know this man’s ethics and his core beliefs.
At the time this was all going on many of you may have read Randy‘s thoughtful and moving blogs (see link below) which were utterly compelling reading to people who had never even listened to his music. As much as they were an insight, there is little to compare to the drama of watching it unfold and seeing him and hearing him speak on camera and in the court room.
There are fascinating facts (note the word “facts”) that emerge in this movie that were often overlooked by the press at the time…I will not list them here, but suffice to say this documentary also serves as a keen reminder to people not to speculate about any court case on the internet when you clearly don’t know all the facts. The information about the video footage of Randy supposedly grabbing the fan in question is a major case in point.
The crushing enormity of it all unfolds as the management start cancelling festivals and it starts to sink in that Randy may stay in jail until trial and if convicted will clearly stay there for years. Again, Argott contrasts the anguish and the sense of impending doom Randy must feel incarcerated in this foreign city with beautiful shots of Prague’s architecture. As was always apparent from Randy‘s blogs – he loved the city and its people and was distressed at so much of the xenophobic rhetoric that swamped social medial sites from the band’s British and American fans.
Believe it or not my day job is as a defence lawyer (similar to a state appointed defence attorney in the US) and I can say for a fact that any Czech national charged with manslaughter in the UK or US would be very unlikely to get bail to leave the country for fear they would not return to face trial. The fact that Randy talks as if the thought would never even occur to him, and talks even more about the tragedy of this fan losing his life, rather than his own plight at facing trial and jail time is testament to what a decent guy he is.
After all – what got lost in all of this when it was happening was that a fan of this band – a fan like you or I – had died. There was an alarming lack of focus on that aspect from much of the media and many fans, but it is refreshing to see it is at the core of what the band reflect upon when being interviewed and at the core of the entire film.
What also dawns is – how on earth do you explain to a bunch of senior judges, who have probably never set foot in a metal gig, what moshing is? How do you explain that it is perfectly ok to shove people, jump on them, push them off a stage etc? Is it ok? Should it be condoned in a court of law even if it’s acceptable to you or me?
The issues and questions that unfold here make this documentary fascinating on so many levels – from human emotion to music culture to legal nuances – this is as gripping as any drama I have watched in years, even though I know the ultimate outcome.
Another interesting aspect of all this is what the knock-on effect might be for other bands and their touring plans and ‘mosh culture’ in general if the verdict goes against Randy. Are other big US bands going to tour Europe if they think they may get arrested if a fan gets hurt? Are ludicrous health and safety rules going to start being enforced that will all but kill moshing and stage diving altogether? Are we going to have to stand still and nod our heads gently when ‘Walk With Me In Hell’ next gets played at a show? Are we even going to get to see Randy perform that song again or will he be behind bars until he’s 50?
Yet the band still remain calm. There is absolutely no anger, recrimination or bitterness. There is only heartfelt sorrow for the tragic and untimely death of Daniel Nosek. Let us not forget Daniel was only 19 years old, an only son and had a bright future ahead of him. As much as anything this film is a tribute to him and it is pleasing to see there is focus on him and his life as well as a compelling scene near the end of the trial where his Uncle looks Randy in the eye and makes a closing speech. It is as gripping as it is moving and it is astonishing and brave that he was able to do it, let alone agreed for the footage to be included in the film.
Contrast this with the earlier scenes of Randy and co returning to the stage for Knotfest; the welcome home he gets from the Iowan crowd after he initially gets bail is spectacular and if you don’t get goosebumps here then you’re wasting your time with music.
The trial itself is edited and played out superbly. It is not dumbed down nor cut down to brief snippets with a patronising voiceover as so often happens even in news reports – it is a skillful blend of footage of testimony and meetings between Randy and his lawyers that convey the atmosphere of the courtroom. The genuine sense of foreboding at the closing of the case when all seemed to think he would be convicted of the lesser charge of negligent homicide and get a tariff of up to five years in jail had me enthralled. Randy‘s final address to the court and to Daniel‘s family is the most compelling thing I have ever seen in a band documentary and doesn’t bear scrutiny or description – it just needs to be watched with an open mind.
The realisation of how much more frightening and tense the whole trial must have been for him when it’s all in a foreign language is palpable as we see Randy‘s facial expressions as he hangs on the every word of his translator.
On so many levels this documentary provides a fascinating insight into metal culture, human nature, tragedy and triumph and everything in between. To have fit so much into 90 minutes without glossing over anything is a remarkable achievement and to have dealt with the trial with such sensitivity and dignity is credit to Argott and the band themselves.
Achieving their original goal of making a film that is a tribute to their fans and a celebration of their live shows yet incorporating this tense court room drama was no mean feat and managing to show the relief of Randy‘s exoneration whilst being respectful to the memory of Daniel is managed with aplomb.
A genuinely remarkable film for so many reasons, and one I sincerely urge you to watch whether you’re a fan of the band or not. Long live Lamb Of God, RIP Daniel Nosek – and let’s all keep an eye out for each other when we’re down the front.