Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Kill Kill Headbang Headbang

At the casual distance that's as close as I've ever gotten to Vice magazine, it's always seemed about 150 degrees from my tastes in hip--too gonzo, too macho, too cynical, too apolitical. But when I attended a screening of the Vice-generated documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, it was soon apparent that these vices were being put to use. The subject is the only Iraqi heavy metal band on the historical record, Acrassicauda, the Lain word for the black scorpion that infests the surrounding desert, whose impossible-to-remember name goes perfectly with the artless title. ("Honey, what was that movie about the Iraqi metal band called? Oh, I guess this must be it.") Really, if you propose to get to Baghdad by hanging around the Frankfort airport until there's a flight to Kurdistan and scoring a visa after you land because no one will give you one anywhere else, a little gonzo macho will come in handy. And if you end up with a passion to convey how totally fucked the Iraqis are, going in cynical and apolitical will only enhance your cred.

Acrassicauda are totally fucked. These four probably middle-class guys (it would be nice if narrator-codirector Suroosh Alvi told us more about their families than how totally fucked they also are, but those are the wages of gonzo), including at least one Sunni, one Shia, and one Christian (historical note: once upon a time, most Iraqi musicians were Jewish), formed their band as teenagers six years ago and have gigged at a rate of under one per year. Their first concert was in Saddam's time, when government enforcers insisted that they perform a song about how the youth loved Saddam, an order they cheerfully and cynically obeyed with a thrash throwaway. In 2004, Vice published a story about them, and then, with zero regard for the niceties of journalistic "objectivity," decided it would be cool to produce and film a concert in Baghdad. Only then the airport got bombed and Vice was stuck in Beirut, leaving the filming to some buddies of theirs in Iraq. Once everybody gets through the checkpoints and the electricity comes on again, Acrassicauda's several hundred headbanging fans find a temporary relief from their perpetually repressed rage that is in no way diminished by the fact that the show has to end at seven so everybody can beat the curfew home.

Vice does eventually get to Baghdad, and though I haven't seen any competing Baghdad films (there were two Oscar nominations, right?), the footage is only enhanced by the fact that, hey, these guys are just trying to make a humble rockdoc. Baghdad is hell somehow co-existing with a recognizable version of daily life. The final third meets up with the band members in Damascus, where they manage to stage another concert and record three Vice-financed demos, which makes them very happy. Their leader lives in a concrete rabbit hole like many if not most of their fellow million-four Iraqi refugees in Syria alone (admitted to US: under 1000). When the co-directors screen the edited Baghdad footage for them in the rabbit hole, they're excited at first. Then they cry. Then they get really mad. That's my idea of great meta.

I'm not a metal person, but musically Acrassicauda are OK--ace guitarist. In any case, this is one case in which it's OK for whether it's a good story to take precedence over whether they're a good band, a pet peeve of mine. For those in NYC, the New York Underground Film Festival will screen Heavy Metal in Baghdad April 2. The flick also played the Toronto Film Festival. Canada wouldn't let the band in. Might be terrorists, you know.

Articles, Mar. 21, 2008


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