Don Argott's documentary As the Palaces Burn tells two interconnected stories, but it started out to tell just one. The idea was to travel with the metal band Lamb of God on the world tour in support of their album Resolution, interviewing fans about their (often intense) connection to the band — and by extension, to each other.
It was going well enough, but when the band arrived in the Czech Republic, lead singer Randy Blythe was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Two years earlier, a Czech fan named Daniel Nosek had crashed the stage during a Lamb of God show. Blythe was accused of throwing him off the stage and causing a head injury which resulted in Nosek's death. Argott made good narrative use of the horrific situation, turning an exploration of the metal community into something more harrowing and personal. The film screens tonight, Thursday, February 27, 7 p.m. at Oceanside's Digiplex Mission Marketplace and Digiplex Poway.
Matthew Lickona: Randy gets released on bail after a month, and Lamb of God is able to perform at the Slipknot festival. After the show, one young fan is so moved that he says, "It's so not metal to cry, but I'm going to cry anyway." What is metal?
Don Argott: That's a complicated question. It's probably one of those more unspoken things. The idea of a tough exterior, of being a little bit hardened. The idea of the music being aggressive and help you — you internalize things, and then you externalize them by letting loose at the show. I'm not sure I agree 100% with the sentiment the guy expresses. The idea is that there's a toughness, but in the film, that gets broken down. You see the band members with their kids, and it totally disarms you. The aggressive music is just one facet of who they are.
ML: You say in one interview that heavy metal has a power to unite people in a way that religion and politics can't. How is that?
DA: Music, specifically this kind of music, becomes more of a lifestyle that you adopt. So within that, just like your political beliefs and your religious beliefs, you end up with a group of people that are "like minded." You see the world the same way, to a degree. With heavy metal, there are none of the messy trappings that come along with politics or religion. I don't think there's the same level of baggage. It's more something that you feel, an emotional thing. It's the idea of community. I grew up listening to heavy metal, and doing this film, I felt an immediate connection to the guys in the band. We already had a kind of common bond, and when we were going to India and Israel and South America, as soon as we'd meet people [who were fans], we'd have this relationship already formed, which is pretty powerful.
ML: Would you say, then, that heavy metal provides community based not on creed or platform but on shared feeling?
ML: What did you listen to growing up?
DA: I started out with punk rock and thrash metal. I was huge into The Misfits. Then I got more into speed metal, stuff like Slayer and Merciful Fate. It was the mid-'80s, and it was an amazing time for that style of music that was emerging. It was new, and it was cool to be there as it was happening.
ML: Getting back to metal and community. It does seem that it has some kind of moral vision. When Randy talks about why he went back to the Czech Republic after he was bailed out and returned to the States, he says that he can't be singing about deception and how f'd up things are, and then not do what's right.
DA: The majority of heavy metal and punk rock is about being anti-establishment, questioning, being anti-religion...it's about the subversive nature of human beings. People get into the death and destruction and end of the world talk, but there's something about the music, as Randy says in the film, that means something. When I grew up listening to punk and heavy metal, I was too young to understand the political climate, to know that they were railing against Reaganomics and all that shit. But I understood and responded to the aggression, that kind of railing against authority. And I think it helped to shape how I see the world.
ML: I get that bit about anti-authority, and it's really hammered home by this quote in the press materials from Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton: "If it doesn't make you want to push the accelerator to the floor a little harder, flip off a cop, or throw a bottle against a brick wall, then I haven't done my job." That's what's funny to me: so much of what I remember about punk rock is "F the system." And yet here's a guy who is not saying "F the system." He's going right into the teeth of the system, knowing it may chew him up. So much of metal says, "The system is corrupt and justice is not going to be served." Why is Randy submitting himself to the wheels of justice when he thinks they're going to roll right over him?
DA: Randy going back to the Czech Republic had nothing to do with the wheels of justice. It had to do with something much more real to him, namely, he felt responsible to the family of Daniel Nosek. It wasn't about the legal system; it was the right thing to do out of respect for the family. I think Randy took that very seriously. I don't know how many people, while we were making the film, said, "Oh, my God — I would never go back." I'm like, "Well, how can you say that? Somebody is basically holding you responsible for taking a life. You have to live with that. If you don't go back, you have to wake up in the morning, look at yourself in the mirror, and know that you're kind of a coward." Randy went back, not because he felt a legal obligation, but because he felt a personal and human obligation to the family.
ML: The courtroom speech from Daniel's uncle, about the suffering of the family, is obviously a very powerful moment. Tell me about your involvement, as a filmmaker, with Daniel's family.
DA: I had to make a tough call. Daniel's mother was in the courtroom, and she cried the entire time. I approached the family, but they didn't want anything to do with the press. So I felt that, out of respect for the family, I was not going to show the mother grieving. The uncle was fair game, because he was part of the court proceedings.
ML: In general, how do you decide what to use and what not to use?
DA: I have my moral line, but that's it. If I'm shooting something and people are okay with me shooting, and it works within the context of the story, great. That's how we make the decision — if it's helping to serve the story. If not, we don't use it.
ML: So what happens when you have a tension between serving the story and serving your subject?
DA: It has to be the story. You struggle with it, obviously — because making documentaries is a very personal experience. You get to be friends with people. You get embedded in their lives. They confide in you and they trust you. You take all that and you have to turn it into a cohesive 90-minute story. You have internal conflicts — is Randy going to be okay with that being seen? - but at the end of the day, it's about the story. We can't hold back, because that's not fair to the audience and it's not the way to make a documentary, to get to the truth of a thing. Do I show [someone] crying? Is that going to bum him out? I have to. It's the right thing for the story, and I think people will respond to the truth of that. It's what really happened, and it works.
ML: Final question and it's a long one. One of the guys talks about how he imagines that for the Czech judges, a rock and roll show means Neil Diamond. And I started to imagine what it would be like to investigate the whole scenario of Daniel's death from a real outsider perspective, just using what your documentary gives. I even made a list. The Indian girl who loves Lamb of God says she's drawn to the aggression of it, and she sings a lyric - "My redemption comes from your demise" - which is violent. The guitarist Slash says that "things happen all the time" in the "exaggerated party atmosphere" of concerts. The fans you show at the concerts are always in a state of near frenzy. And finally, Randy says that the shows are chances for people to get their demons out. People have some pretty damaging demons, and when you let them out, terrible things can happen. It made me wonder - is heavy metal dangerous? Not in terms of corrupting the youth with evil lyrics, but in terms of creating a dangerous environment?
DA: As soon as all this went down, it was like heavy metal was on trial. It's not really hard to demonize. It looks really scary from the outside, and frankly, it looks pretty scary from the inside. You can see: it is a frenzied environment. That's what it is. It's like trying to make football safer: you can take precautions, but it's an inherently violent sport. That's what it is. You're not going to take heavy metal and put seats in the venue and have people sit down as if they were at an opera. That's not what it is. Nobody's saying it's not a dangerous environment.
But I think the way to soften that is to show how it's also a community. If people do fall down, they're more than likely to get picked up by the people around them. The people want to stick together; nobody wants anybody to get hurt. But again, that's part of the ritual or whatever of going to a metal show — that ability to let loose. That's why the first half of the movie illustrates why people let loose. Then it comes to pass in the second half of the movie that people see this culture from the outside for what it is, and it's terrifying.
ML: I read once where John Cleese said that Monty Python broke up "because we woke up one morning and we weren't angry any more." He may have been joking, but it's clear that a lot of their comedy came from a place of deep anger at the way the world was. It seemed to me that the same thing could happen with a metal band: waking up and not being angry any more. These guys seem to have exorcised a lot of their personal demons: Randy getting sober, other guys getting married and settling down. Then they have to go and make this angry music. It felt in places like this was their job: making this music even if they themselves weren't full of rage.
DA: Yeah, I thought that was one of the interesting places the film went. There's something interesting in the idea of growing older and playing this very aggressive music. Mark says it beautifully: "I'm not a martyr. I love playing guitar for a living. But that's one part of me. I'm also a family guy. I have a daughter and a wife, and I love being at home." I think a lot of the guys are settling into the reality of that, and they're asking, "How long are we going to keep doing this?" In the beginning of the film, they're admitting that they're not best friends, that they're not as excited to jump on the tour bus. But then when it threatens to end, and not on their own terms — I think it was Mark who said, "I realized I've taken a lot of stuff for granted."