Review: Metal Documentary This is GWAR Chronicles the Over-the-Top Band’s Costumes, Egos and Cultural Footprint

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, when it comes to music documentaries, I always prefer to watch ones about acts or music styles that I’m less familiar with, because it then becomes the film’s job to convince me that its subject is worth having a documentary made about it in the first place. In the case of the shock-metal band/performance art collective GWAR, I already knew they would make for an excellent film subject, even though I knew virtually nothing about their music or history. Not that many years ago, I got the chance to spend time with two of the band’s many members—BälSäc the Jaws of Death and Sleazy P. Martini—both in and out of costume, during an appearance at the Music Box Theatre. At the event, they screened a number of their most memorable, boundary-pushing, and just plain vulgar, videos and short films. It was a memorable evening, and the band members couldn’t have been nicer. What I didn’t know at the time was the decades-long, brutal, hilarious and sometimes tragic road that these two guys had taken to make it there that night, all of which is detailed in This is GWAR.

From director Scott Barber (Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story), the movie explores the journey of a group of creative young men—some fresh out of art school—living in Richmond, Virginia, and looking for a way to stand out in a crowded art scene. They didn’t see themselves as a metal band; instead, they wanted to be a group making fun of the excesses of metal. But they also wanted to make movies and produce comic books detailing the fictional adventures of the band members, in particular frontman Dave Brockie (Oderus Urungus), whose personality was only matched by his ego. And as the costumes got more elaborate and outrageous, so too did their stage show, which became wilder, more blood soaked, and just straight-up gross. And as the stage shows grew more notorious, their music actually went from silly to solid metal that made their albums worth buying.

The film features a great number of terrific interviews from current and former band members (since everyone wore costumes, it wasn’t uncommon for new members to come in, strap on the last guy’s costume, and continue as the same character), as well as a handful of famous fans, such as Alex Winter, Weird Al Yankovic, Thomas Lennon, Bam Margera, and Ethan Embry, whose character in Empire Records was a big GWAR admirer. The film also digs into that brief moment in pop culture during which GWAR entered the zeitgeist, thanks to one of their videos appearing on the original run of “Beavis & Butt-Head” and talk show appearances that were exceedingly well done. But Brockie’s refusal to self-censor some of the harsher lyrics on their albums made it impossible for a major label to distribute their records or MTV to play their videos (which didn’t stop them from getting a Grammy nomination for one of their video albums).

Over the years, members left, others died, some went on to more financially successful bands, but most of them clearly treasure their time in GWAR, and I’m guessing even their most faithful and long-term fans will pick up new bits of information about the band from the material featured in this documentary. One of the chief architects of conflict within the band was ego, especially Brockie’s, but he was also the one who kept the band’s imagination alive and well with unpredictable behavior and the ability to lose himself in the Oderus Urungus character when he put on the costume.

Director Barber manages to compile a deeply moving and heartfelt story about an extended family of performers and musicians, all of whom simply got it done, played as if their lives depended on it, and made their mark on the metal scene, whether that was their intention or not. It’s a terrific tale of artists working together to make something utterly new and terrifyingly different. Even their failures and clashes ended up strengthening the art, and as a result, GWAR have been around for more than 30 years, devastating stages around the world. My only complaint about This is GWAR is that we don’t hear enough actual music (meaning complete or mostly complete songs), because it’s clear from the snippets we do hear, there was something quite substantial in their work at times, and it would have been terrific to get more evidence of that. Even still, the film is tremendously entertaining and informative. For those unfamiliar with GWAR, you’ll learn a great deal—but strap yourselves in.

The film is now streaming on Shudder.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.