Sunday, October 07, 2012

Rocktober: 'Heavy Metal in Baghdad' (2007)

Rock movies often try to convey the idea that music is so vital that it can be literally the only thing that some people have to live for, the only thing in their lives that has meaning. That's usually because they've got some emotional trauma or because their family members and peers, like, totally don't understand them, but rarely is there the sense that music really is a life-and-death thing, that it's the only thing keeping people from death or annihilation. The one thing that the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad does well is convey just how vital the music of Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda is to its members' lives.

Unfortunately, that's about the only thing this disjointed, clumsy documentary does well, and it's too bad, because the story of Acrassicauda is fascinating, and it's one that I was looking forward to learning more about. The self-proclaimed only metal band in Iraq started during the Saddam Hussein regime and struggled for respect and tolerance even then, but after the American invasion and subsequent chaos, the band members literally had nothing else to hold on to. Eventually their music became the means to save their lives, to publicize their plight and get them out of the country and to relative comfort and safety (since the movie was released, they've relocated to the U.S. and recorded an EP).

Directors Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi (a co-founder of Vice magazine and the movie's omnipresent narrator and host) spend way too much time on their own plight, their difficulties getting to Baghdad and navigating around the city, their half-formed observations about the cost of the U.S. occupation and the crisis of Iraqi refugees. They highlight important issues but in a very haphazard, superficial way, and fare much better when focusing on the individual struggles of the four band members. There are far too many scenes showing Alvi waiting around or being driven somewhere or pontificating about the terrible consequences of U.S. military presence in Iraq. It may simply be that there wasn't enough Acrassicauda footage for a whole feature film, but in that case they should have just made a TV special instead.

The band's story is far from finished, of course, and the movie ends somewhat abruptly, with even its closing title cards not telling the full story of what happened next (and is still happening). As a narrative, Heavy Metal in Baghdad is a frustrating failure, and it isn't even a great showcase for Acrassicauda's (decent but unexceptional) music. At times, though, it captures that all-consuming power of music. Watching young Iraqi fans moshing and headbanging at one of the only concerts Acrassicauda was ever able to play in Iraq, you get a real and immediate sense of the deep meaning of the music. It's too bad that the rest of the movie is so uninspired.

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