A young metalhead who’s unsure of himself finds purpose in a diehard headbanger friend. Together, the two start a band, navigate teachers and bullies, and forge a bond under the banner of heavy music that takes them on a madcap adventure which explores what it truly means to be a metalhead. That movie is of course Jason Lei Howden’s 2015 horror comedy Deathgasm, a film that the makers of Netflix’s Metal Lords seemingly watched quite a few times before making their own movie. The difference is that Metal Lords is a real-world teen comedy, while Deathgasm is a demonic zombie flick with a savage dildo beating – and yet somehow, the latter movie feels more relatable than the former.
Metal Lords follows Kevin (Jaeden Martell), an insecure drummer who’s dragged into the world of metal by Hunter (Adrian Greensmith), his metalhead friend since the 3rd Grade. Their band Skullfucker is scheduled to play in the Battle of the Bands, but they can’t land a bass player. Kevin finds himself falling for Emily (Isis Hainsworth), a cello player from his school who he thinks could complete their trio, but Hunter’s rudeness and single-minded devotion to metal drives her, and him, away. Soon, Kevin is playing with the cool kids’ cover band and Hunter is trying to force Emily out of the picture rather than confront his personal problems. Can the friends reunite, the romance be saved, and metal prevail?
To its credit, Metal Lords has some emotional chops during its rare moments of humanity. Watching Kevin learn the drums as he absorbs metal music hits home powerfully, and his romance with Emily is very sweet. Hainsworth’s Emily is overall a great character, imperfect and uneven in a way that makes you root for her. As you watch her navigate her mental health issues and see Kevin lose his way after joining a lame cover band and hopping in a hot tub with another cute girl, you feel her pain. Meanwhile, the popular kids are lame, but they aren’t assholes – they even love Kevin’s double-bass drumming – which is a cool dodge of a tired cliche. Finally, the closing performance at the Battle of the Bands is fun as fuck, and shows how everyone loves metal so long as it rules. “Machinery of Torment” is a rad song. That’s undeniable.
But two things drag all this down. The first is Hunter. Dude sucks, and in an unrealistic way. His metalheaddom feels performative, both for the character and for the viewer. All of the metal cliches are heaped upon him — asshole guitar player, asshole to girls, asshole D&D participant. He’s constantly getting beaten up by bullies, but it’s hard to care because he’s such a shithead himself. He’s daring and earnest when the film needs him to be and utterly exhausting otherwise. Where does it come from? His negligent plastic-surgeon dad, who provides him with unlimited funds, a muscle car, and the coolest room any kid could ever have…but not affection. When Hunter finally grows as a person, it’s too easy, too out-loud. The character feels like a surface-level avatar for the metal genre, an amalgamation of Internet research whom no real metalhead has ever actually hung out with.
And then, there’s the metal. Look, the movie brings a lot of Celtic Frost album art and Meshuggah shirts, so it has a leg up on some more of the phoned-in metal-themed movies out there (it definitely feels more genuine than Sound of Metal’s indie-rock pulled-punches interpretation of the genre). But musically, it’s all Judas Priest and “War Pigs,” with a Zeal & Ardor track played over a corpsepaint scene that the film doesn’t earn. Multiple characters reference Rock of Ages, a song and/or musical that no high school kid after 2015 has ever given a shit about. No one’s on Metal Archives or Bandcamp. There’s no Gatecreeper, no Power Trip, not even BABYMETAL The whole thing feels like it was written to take place in another era – sometimes ‘85, sometimes ‘98, sometimes ‘03 – but doesn’t care about what it is to love this music in 2022. When Emily finally shows up to the Battle of the Bands in torn fishnets like a goth version of Sandy at the end of Grease, it’s like a statement on the movie as a whole – any other story, just in ragged black and buckled leather.
You could argue that Metal Lords isn’t for me, and maybe that has some merit. I’m a middle-aged dad judging a teen comedy, after all. But a big part of being a metalhead is always remembering what it was like to discover heavy metal in your youth. The genre creates an internal time warp within its fans that forever connects them to the moment this art made them feel complete when nothing else did. Metal Lords tries hard to nail that moment, which is commendable – but it tries too hard, and can’t see the grim, frostbitten forest for all the denim-and-leather trees. The movie doesn’t feel like it knows us – and if metal can’t connect with who you really are on the inside, then it’s all just a bunch of noise.
Metal Lords can be streamed now on Netflix.