The concept was simple: Film fans partying before a Judas Priest concert in suburban Washington, D.C. The result was epic: a 17-minute cult-hit documentary titled “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” now celebrating its 30th anniversary, and screening this Saturday at the Hollywood Theater, in Dormont.
On May 31, 1986, filmmakers John Heyn and Jeff Krulik1 took borrowed equipment to the parking lot of the Capital Centre, and waded into the jubilant sea of metal fandom: shirtless dudes throwing horns and girls with blown-out hair “trippin’ Jack Daniels,” leaning on muscle cars and shit vans, invoking their gods with bellowed hosannas of “Prrrrriiieeeessssttttt!”
When I first watched this film back in the 1980s2, I laughed at the fans, so tragically dressed and so guileless in their idiotic, boozy profundity: “They should make a joint so big it fits across America and everybody smokes it.” I’ve incorporated some of the keepers — “Busch and Budweiser — you got your choice” — into my own joke repertoire.
And I wasn’t alone. “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” became a word-of-mouth hit of sorts, passed around on bootlegged videotapes to be shared among fans of metal and of funny videos, and also among those who admired how “HMPL” transcended its micro budget and easy laughs to become a meaningful piece of cinema3.
Because “HMPL” turns out to be surprisingly layered: Shot and presented without judgment, it’s both a snapshot of a specific time, place and culture, and a timeless paean to being young.
It’s a perfect encapsulation of the mid-1980s’ mostly white, suburban affection for heavy metal: the look; the derision of other music (“Madonna can go to hell as far as I’m concerned. She’s a dick.”); the attendant partying; and the (admittedly mild) rebellion it offered. The film even includes a parents-just-don’t-understand moment offered by a Cap Centre worker: “I never seen such thing in all my life till I’ve been working here. The way these young people talk, and the way they dress, and the way they make noise.”
But every snapshot of carefree youth is already marking the past; these kids are grooving with their tribe on a warm night before the grind of adulthood makes such experiences rarer. “HMPL” also keens with that last-hurrah wistfulness of such canonical nostalgic works as American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. And it’s all real, unvarnished.
In the ensuing years, “HMPL” moved from crappy VHS dubs to legitimate and modern formats, including a website (www.heavymetalparkinglot.com). It may have started out as a goof, but “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” has earned a rightful place in the canon of Great Rock Documentaries (it made Rolling Stone’s cut at No. 33); it’s celebrating its 30th birthday with a tour, an exhibit at the University of Maryland and even a limited-edition craft beer.
Never mind the three decades that have since passed — in “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” the good times are forever: Friends are the best, Judas Priest rules, and that one girl is still “headed to Ocean City to party more.
Disclosure No. 1: I was friends with Jeff Krulik and John Heyn in 1986. Still am.
Disclosure No. 2: I received a free copy of “HPML.” On Betamax. Still plays.
Disclosure No. 3: I played that tape for dozens of people over the years, contributing to the film’s pre-internet viralness. Still do.
Disclosure No. 4: Pat Clark is my husband, and also subject to Disclosures No. 1-3.