Heavy metal music has long been about extremes – the outfits, the artwork, the sheer noise – but few bands can claim to have taken things as far as GWAR. Known for dressing up as fierce aliens with giant prosthetic genitals and covering their audiences in fake bodily fluids, the legendary US rockers’ story is scarcely believable – involving death, drugs, brushes with the law, road rage shootouts and an ever-changing line-up that puts Fleetwood Mac to shame. This Is GWAR, a new documentary streaming on Shudder, tells it in full gory detail for the first time.
The film begins in Richmond, Virginia during the mid-1980s. Punk singer Dave Brockie meets art student and fledgling filmmaker Hunter Jackson at a deserted bottling plant turned underground music venue. Together, they take Jackson’s idea for a gross-out sci-fi movie and supercharge Brockie’s group Death Pig with the glorious and grotesque monster costumes of GWAR. Theirs are humble beginnings, but the more they gig and the madder the shows become, the faster their fandom grows.
By the mid-’90s, thanks largely to a sync on MTV’s teen cartoon Beavis and Butt-Head, GWAR are on the precipice of something big. The line-up is (fairly) stable, they’ve just snagged a major record deal and a well-publicised incident in North Carolina at the start of the decade fostered national attention. Following a show in Charlotte in which they inserted a crucifix into the anus of a huge prop-priest, they were banned from performing in the state (the presiding judge was, brilliantly, named Dick Boner).
Unfortunately, the anti-establishment tendencies of Brockie would prevent GWAR reaching new heights. His lyrics for fourth album ‘This Toilet Earth’ were perhaps the lewdest yet (‘B. D. F.’ stood for “Baby Dick Fuck”) and Warner refused to release it, cancelling the contract. It would be their only chance with a mainstream label.
There are more wild tales in This Is GWAR – guitarist Pete Lee gets shot on the highway and returns to stage wearing a colostomy bag; while Brockie spends an entire tour in character as The Terminator – but the scenes that linger longest depict rock and roll’s darker side. When co-vocalist Matt Maguire breaks down during a chat about his and Jackson’s estranged friendship, it’s deeply moving – as is the section detailing guitarist Michael Derks’ battle with cancer. The biggest bombshell comes near the end though. Tragically, founder member Brockie dies aged 50 due to an accidental heroin overdose. Obviously, this isn’t news to even a casual fan of GWAR, but the funeral featuring a Viking-style ship burial and hundreds of cheering ‘Habs’ (an affectionate term for GWAR fans) turns what has been a bro-dominated odyssey into a teary ode to community in culture.
And that’s what’s special about This Is GWAR. Heavy metal still struggles with an image of toxic masculinity – hardly surprising when you consider its obsession with violence and satanic imagery. Yet director Scott Barber does well to present “the world’s sickest band” as a loving family of weirdos. Yes, they had issues. Yes, they fell out from time to time. Yes, they might’ve sprayed a little less sperm. But who amongst us can say any different?
- Director: Scott Barber
- Featuring: Dave Brockie, Hunter Jackson, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic
- Release date: July 21 (Shudder)