The road of the Kiss tribute band runs through New Britain, Wallington, and Nyack, and is hard. The road of the Elvis impersonator, with its mandatory weight fluctuations, humiliating sideburns, and costly jumpsuits, is harder still. And the road of the man who joins, but does not fully consummate, a shotgun suicide pact at the urging of nonexistent, backwardly masked messages in Judas Priest songs—well, that man’s road is full of plastic surgery and permanent facial deformation, and is painful indeed.
“Mondo Fandom,” as Anthology calls it in their rock-fan documentary series, is not a term meant to be applied to the comparatively faint-of-heart groupies, weed-carriers, and hormonal teenagers that traditionally constitute pop music’s base. In the granddaddy of the program, John Heyn and Jeff Krulik’s Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986), 20-year-old Air Force pledges enthusiastically tongue 13-year-olds; shirtless dudes demand the legalization of the drugs they’re currently on; and angelic tailgaters show off their backseat knee-burn with pride. Question: “What band are you here to see?” Answer: “Your mother.”
The actual answer is Judas Priest, who come in for a far more revealing portrait in David Van Taylor’s unflinchingly sad Dream Deceivers (1992). Van Taylor’s film revisits the infamous 1990 subliminal-message trial, in which the band defended themselves against allegations that secret commands in their songs had led two Reno teenagers to attempt suicide with a 12-gauge shotgun. One, Raymond Belknap, succeeded. The other, James Vance, did not. In Deceivers, Vance’s ruined, doughy face and lisping on-camera interviews alternate with court footage, including a startling bit in which a suit-clad Rob Halford does a few melismatic bars of “Better by You, Better Than Me” from the witness stand. Later, Halford pegs the extreme fandom thing as largely being about a desire for approval. “I think of the judge like I guess the fans think of us,” says Halford, keyed up after his testimony. “To be close to him like that was a real experience.”
This is the logic that leads the five aching misfits—two desperately unhappy best friends, a prim gay couple, and a young, developmentally disabled obsessive—of Tai Uhlmann’s For the Love of Dolly (2006) to make awkward annual pilgrimages to Dollywood. One fan imagines Dolly Parton as a surrogate for the mother she doesn’t speak to; another re-creates the country star’s childhood Tennessee shack in her backyard. In Uhlmann’s version, fandom is compensation for some essential lacking—if not Dolly, they’d fill it with drugs, alcohol, or Christ, maybe.
Paradoxically, the actual musicians don’t seem to matter much. John Paget’s Almost Elvis (2001) follows a crew of janitors, reformed go-go dancers, and battleship painters as they come together in Memphis to compete in the Elvis Impersonator World Championships. Like the tribute bands of Jim Heneghan’s Kiss Loves You (2004), who, at times, seem to despise the actual members and music of Kiss, the impersonators here are as much into discipline and self-improvement as they’re into Elvis himself. Mostly, it’s about becoming something—or someone—else. The artist is just the vessel.