Director Peter Sollett (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and screenwriter D.B Weiss (co-creator of Game of Thrones) accomplish the nearly impossible in the new Netflix comedy, Metal Lords – they make heavy metal cute. That’s not necessarily a bad thing considering the movie’s fantastic performances and unapologetically affable tone. It’s a light and breezy affair that doesn’t really break new ground, but who needs melodrama or a lesson in adolescent psychotherapy when Black Sabbath and Judas Priest are on the soundtrack? Reminiscent of 2016’s Edge of Seventeen, whose narrative is loose enough to include the comic travails of being a teenager while still treating its subject with gravitas, Metal Lords is both an enjoyable homage to adolescent angst and a worthy nod to one of the great genres in music history.
Kevin (Jaeden Martell of It) is your typical high school outcast. He’s diminutive, cautious to the point of squirrelly, makes excuses for the bullies that push him around and, like most outsiders, is best friends with another social pariah, Hunter (Adrian Greensmith). With his long hair, Slayer tees, and steely glare, Hunter might look tougher than his pal but that’s just a smokescreen; they’re both scared of the world. What is genuine however is Hunter’s love for heavy metal. He not only rips on guitar but convinces Kevin to practice on his drums; they’re going to start a band called SkullFucker and become gods. But first, they need a bassist.
In their hopeless search for a bass player, Kevin encounters Scottish student, Emily (Isis Hainsworth), as she unexpectedly blows up at their marching band coach (rock journalist Chuck Klosterman in a hilarious cameo), calling him a “fucking cunt.” Kevin discovers that Emily is not only passionate about playing the cello but takes medication for a mental illness. Although there are some funny moments when Emily is about to explode with her eyes protruding, the movie is empathetic to her character and the issue of mental illness in general. She simply can’t help her outbursts and sincerely wants to get better. As they become a couple, Kevin tries to convince Hunter to let Emily in the band, but it’s a hard no, as he feels threatened by his friend’s new love interest. With his power waning over their friendship, Hunter descends into a self-imposed exile and depression. Will Kevin and Hunter repair their lifelong friendship? Can Hunter and his booze-guzzling, douche of a father ever get along? Will Kevin realize he’s got a girlfriend and stop being tempted to hang out with the “cool” kids?
Although it might sound like an episode of Euphoria, Sollett keeps the story flowing with a spirited momentum which never stops to embellish the darker moments. The filmmakers also have a knack for injecting some fantasy into the narrative. Like when Hunter literally floats over a crowd while shredding on his guitar ala Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. This sequence, which could’ve made the movie feel parodic and maudlin, is actually kind of endearing and humanist in Sollett’s capable hands.
Weiss’ script touches on subjects such as mental illness, alcoholism, and unbridled teenage angst, but he’s more interested in music and how it can act as both a shelter from the storm and a conduit to self-knowledge. To help convey that message, Netflix foot the bill for one hell of a soundtrack, which includes Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Guns N’ Roses, and Iron Maiden. Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who also makes a cameo alongside Kirk Hammett and Rob Halford, served as executive music producer.
Unfortunately, the movie suffers from some clunky moments and flat jokes that are not only forced but keep us at arm’s length from the characters’ inner lives. The second act in particular dips in momentum and opts for cartoonish scenarios instead of peeling back some layers and taking us to more profound places. At times, you wish the filmmakers would break their own rules, as any respectable metalhead would do, and darken shit up a little. As a result, the movie feels more sing-along than Slayer, tone-wise. But even if every joke doesn’t land and the drama is a little spongy, the filmmakers’ obvious passion for the music propels the narrative into some interesting and unexpected places.
Metal Lords works best when it squeezes all the comic juice from a genre that is equally loved and maligned. With its Satanic imagery, homoeroticism and masculine bravado, heavy metal is rife for comic possibilities, and the filmmakers take full advantage of it. If you haven’t noticed, heavy metal can take itself a little seriously; but then again so do teenagers, and therein lies the connection this movie celebrates.