In praise of heavy metal in Canadian cinema — and its surprising message of love

Filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming reflects on how movies opened her up to a culture her younger self "might have dismissed or misunderstood."

Filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming on a culture our nation's movies taught her to understand

"Heavy Metal." (Columbia Pictures)

This is part of a series of essays by Canadian filmmakers on the homegrown cinema that influenced them, in honour of National Canadian Film Day. 

I'd like to talk about a couple of films — two sides of the same coin, really — that opened me up to seeing a culture that I was not a part of in a new way. A culture that a younger self might have dismissed or misunderstood: metal. 

Unexpectedly, I found myself buying tickets to an Iron Maiden concert last year in Vancouver. I loved it. I loved the crowd. I loved the energy. Heck, anything to do with metal seems to have more energy than everything else, combined. And I loved the message. The message The vibe was non-judgmental and positive. I looked around me, at the 95% male audience, all smiling and laughing and hugging and drinking and thought, "These people would love to see my film." I was at the end of making Window Horses: the Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming, a gentle animated feature that takes place in a poetry festival in Iran, using the artistry of many different animators with different styles. And this got me thinking about that Canadian animated classic Heavy Metal and the love letter of a documentary Anvil: the Story of Anvil.

Heavy Metal is a Canadian-helmed animated opus that pits good versus evil. I hadn't thought about it much in the ensuing 36 years since I saw it in the theatre. To say that it is adult animation is to refer to its violence and sexual content, not its intellectual one. Based on the Heavy Metal and Metal Hurlant magazines (not the music genre, per se, so the soundtrack includes Journey, Stevie Nicks, Devo and a score by Elmer Bernstein), it's got large-breasted women and big beefy men who are often having sex. Yes, it's rude and purile but I don't even know if it's sexist, though it is a hetero-teenage boy wet dream with a pretty strong sense of irony. It wasn't really my taste in film, but as a comic and animation buff, it was a solemn duty to see this on the screen.

I always knew it was Canadian, but I didn't realize how deep that went. Ivan Reitman produced it, Gerald Potterton directed it, Dan Goldberg and Len Blum wrote it. An all-star cast voiced it, including John Candy, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Don Francks, Marilyn get the picture — all Canucks. I even saw Janice Brown as a supervising editor.

The animation was done by five different studios and veers wildly in style and tone. The savior of civilization may be a woman, but her portrayal perhaps reflects the all-male creative team behind this project.

But the reason I think it is an important film is that it talks about evil (evil, is, in fact, the narrator, voiced by Percy Roderigez) — how it is irresistible, whether we are searching for it or not, and how it expresses itself as hate and death. Yes, these may be classic comi cbook tropes, but Heavy Metal, which happens in different places on the time-space continuum, shows how in our explorations — even of other galaxies — we are taking our outdated, nostalgic ideas to new places and we are bringing back the same old crap.  A Corvette comes out of the belly of a spaceship to return to earth. The souvenir the astronaut presents his daughter with is an evil green orb that wants to give her a warning: civil society is vulnerable (a powerful message for our world today).

We have to choose love over desire. We have to choose life over death. We have to put aside our own petty wants and needs to help others. That's what I remember from the movie: I remember that we have to always be vigilant against hate.- Ann Marie Fleming, filmmaker

The duality of goodness/love is portrayed as random and careless and fragile — and we need to take care of it. Heavy Metal is a morality tale that shows what people will do (regardless of what galaxy they live in) to others for power over them, or for money, or for anything — and how unsuspecting, decent people are all susceptible to this force. We have to choose love over desire. We have to choose life over death. We have to put aside our own petty wants and needs to help others. That's what I remember from the movie: I remember that we have to always be vigilant against hate.

If you can't see yourself sitting through one-and-a-half animated hours of graphic violence and big-breasted naked women just to see that at its core, metal is all about love and respect, I urge you to watch Anvil: the Story of Anvil. The documentary follows Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Rob Reiner, a couple of kids from Toronto who were influential to entertainers like Lemmy and Slash while relegated to obscurity themselves. Now, this film is about love! Love of friendship, of music, of being an artist, love of what you do — never giving up. It makes you laugh and cry.

Technically, it's directed by a British guy, Sacha Gervasi, who is a loyal fan and ex-roadie — but I don't think you could find a more Canadian film. We watch the duo try and resuscitate their careers in middle age, to mixed effect. You want Lips to succeed so badly; you are overwhelmed by his own shortcomings and thrilled by his amazing spirit. We all want some of whatever it is that gives him his creative passion. Now that's love. Rock on.

To find National Canadian Film Day events near you, visit their website.


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