My knowledge of Norwegian black metal is pretty basic, stemming from a couple articles read nearly two decades ago when one musician murdered another. If I've already lost you, then this documentary is going to be tough sledding, despite its intriguing promise to reveal the truth about the cultish music scene.
Working mostly with contemporary interviews with Norwegian black-metal musicians, the filmmakers -- Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell -- very slowly build to the scene's defining events, a violent period in the early 1990s which included church arsons and the deaths of some key figures.
With so little context, it's hard for a non-fan, however generally interested, to follow who is talking about whom, and about what. The film appeared to be establishing two competing narratives and ideologies espoused by back-in-the-day scenesters Varg Vikernes, now an imprisoned pontificator, and Fenriz, a still-working musician who bums around Oslo a lot (when not taking moody walks in snowy woods). But frankly, that is just my best guess. Around the edges of the low-budget film was a lot of fascinating material left unexplored, or poorly contextualized. (Filmmaker Harmony Korine is apparently a fan of black metal -- and that means what, exactly?)
Docs about fringe cultures are among my favorites, but I didn't glean much new information here. I certainly wasn't surprised to learn that the Norwegian media cheaply sensationalized bands that sport upside-down crosses as "Satanists." But I also didn't leave the film with any clearer idea of what black metal was; how it differs from "regular" metal; whether theatrical celebrations of violence destroyed the scene; what, if any, black metal's impact has been; and why its followers wear corpse paint (still!).
Fans will likely be happy hearing from some of their heroes, and glomming the teeny bit of archival footage. And for good or bad, depending on your tastes, there's very little black metal music actually played. In English, and Norwegian, with subtitles. Fri., Jan. 29, through Tue., Feb. 2. Melwood