Metal Lords movie review: Netflix teen dramedy plays its coming-of-age riff fast and loose

Metal Lords, co-written by Game of Thrones scribe DB Weiss, fails when it tries to tap into the more universal aspects of the adolescent experience.

Prahlad Srihari April 11, 2022 09:42:01 IST


Language: English

Heavy metal becomes catalyst and catharsis for the coming-of-age woes of two high-school misfits trying to win the Battle of the Bands in the watch-and-forget Netflix movie, Metal Lords.

The music genre has always been considered the voice of the misfit. Never mind the bad rap it gets: if you have ever been caught in a mosh, screamed for vengeance, and reigned in blood, you will know it boasts a power that is unfathomable to the metal-averse. You either love it, or hate it. Director Peter Sollett sure has love and some amount of appreciation for metal and its subculture. Where the movie fails is when it tries to tap into the more universal aspects of the adolescent experience.

For Hunter Sylvester (Adrian Greensmith), his love for metal defines every aspect of his identity. Posters of Black Sabbath, Motörhead, Dio, and Judas Priest hang on the walls of his basement jam room — a shrine dedicated to all his heroes. The ceremonial objects, from Marshall amps to a variety of V-shaped guitars, are lined across the floor. An endless succession of black T-shirts with band insignia and album covers make up his wardrobe. A lot of the genre’s torchbearers are namechecked, if not needle-dropped. The vanity sign on his car pays tribute to an Iron Maiden song. Malmsteen of Gorgoroth is his D&D name.

Finding the dork side to the teenaged headbanger, the screenplay by DB Weiss geeks out on the details of metal fandom. Weiss going from writing Game of Thrones to a love letter to metal shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, given a lot of metal is inspired by fantasy fiction, and the two share overlapping fans. A sense of fantasy is injected into the final performance as well — as Weiss and Sollett find the emotional truth to playing rage-against-the-machine music, and revel in the theatricality of the solo.

Given his peers prefer their Imagine Dragons over Iron Maiden, Hunter obviously struggles to fit in. His only friend is band-mate Kevin Schlieb (Jaeden Martell), who is utterly clueless about metal, having only played the drum (not drums) for the school’s marching band.

In the introductory voice-over, Kevin wonders what metal is all about. Is it about power? Resistance to authority? The devil? He isn’t sure. When the school announces a Battle of the Bands competition, Hunter and Kevin realise they need a bassist so they can be considered a band, rather than a duo. This is where the third misfit Emily Spector (Isis Hainsworth), a British teen who has recently moved to the US, enters the frame. Emily is a classical cellist, not a bassist. But what she has in spades is the prerequisite rage. Kevin is thus eager to invite her in: when she can play 'War Pigs' with such ease on a cello, how can he not? Hunter is of course anything but pleased with having a girl in his metal band. When Kevin and Emily become a couple in the span of an awkward phone call, it will cause an inevitable rift between the two best friends and bandmates.

As you might expect, the movie settles into the ritualistic groove of so many teen dramas, headbanging to the same beats: Jocks are pushy bullies; Parents are neglectful; Mental illness is reduced to a quirk. Emily struggles with a mood disorder. When we first meet her, she serves the marching band teacher a proper tongue-lashing. Once Kevin and Emily fall for each other, Emily seems to stop taking her medication altogether because Kevin is now her “happy pill.” The movie irresponsibly suggests being in a relationship is some sort of cure in itself.

For a movie full of love for a genre whose general purview includes doom, misery, war, rebellion, anger and all sorts of inner and outer demons, Metal Lords keeps its coming-of-age comedy lighthearted.

But it becomes muddled in its own messages, like about it being okay to not fit in as long as you have friends who don’t fit in either. At one point, Kevin feels tempted to cheat on Emily with a girl struggling with self-esteem issues. Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Anthrax’s Scott Ian, and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello drop by for a brief cameo, acting as shoulder angels. Halford preaches some corny message about not turning your back on those who love you. The next scene, Kevin and Emily are buying records as if what Kevin almost did doesn’t warrant further scrutiny.

When any alternative subculture gets the mainstream treatment, there is always the fear of a one-size-fits-all approach that peddles stereotypes. Even if Metal Lords aims to be a love letter to the genre, a change of heart is expedited through simple hair, makeup, and costume changes. On-screen portrayal of metal subculture has always been prone to reductive or exaggerated treatments based on the level of moral panic it tends to cause among the easily outraged. Where the sceptics hear only painful screams of rage, the believers hear joyful roars of empowerment. Listening to metal may help drown out pestilent thoughts that come from the emotional upheaval of adolescence.

Metal Lords movie review Netflix teen dramedy plays its comingofage riff fast and loose

Still from Metal Lords

For Hunter, the booming Marshall amp, the middle-finger to authority, and the overall abrasive attitude act as defence mechanisms. His mom washed her hands off the family when he was in seventh grade. His dad (Brett Gelman) is a plastic surgeon who might have a bit of an alcohol problem, and is growing tired of all the teenage rebellion. Being a child of divorce, Hunter directs all his anger and resentment into his music, while keeping everyone at arm’s length. For Kevin, metal is an outlet to show he’s got the skills, resolve, and independence to cut it as a drummer. Getting better at it is a way to wrestle back some control in what is a toxic friendship with Hunter. While the movie firmly believes in the transformational power of music, it also understands a creative collaboration can be just as sapping as empowering.

Not only can Hunter be “a massive dick” as Kevin says, he also embodies the gatekeeping inherent to any niche interest. When Kevin makes a case for Emily to join the band, Hunter curtly responds, "No Yokos," and even describes having a cellist in a metal band as “completely gay.” The comment is followed by a needle-drop on Judas Priest’s 'Grinder' as the camera cheekily zooms in on the posters of the metal bands hung on Hunter’s wall: posters of men with only underwears on, men with visible crotch bulges, men in tight-fitting leather jackets, and sundry penis imagery. Also, as Kevin reminds him, their band is called “Skullfucker.”

Such moments and the soundtrack aside, Metal Lords hits very few right notes. It has all the makings and sincerity of a Netflix movie, playing to metalheads and fans of teen dramas to cash in on another demographic subset of subscribers. Indeed, the serving of overheated coming-of-age comedy leftovers, the sappy half-hearted messages, and the insipid writing will only invite scorn from said demographics.

Metal Lords is streaming on Netflix.

Rating: **

Prahlad Srihari is a film and music writer based in Bengaluru.

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