Raiders continues its Back to School theme this week with some much needed Music Appreciation. Whether you launched your appreciation of a certain genre of Energy Music through Heavy Metal Parking Lot, or just hours of stereo volumes pegged to 11 followed by blurry road trips to see Ozzy or Mötley Crüe, or maybe you just liked the wardrobe and appreciate Mark Wahlberg in “Rock Star” – we all have been touched in some way by our own rock n’ roll journey and Raider Contributor Phil Oppenheim takes us down one particular path that starts at Oregon City High School (and, coincidentally or ironically enough, the shooting location for Netflix’s “Everything Sucks” this past summer).
One of the greatest joys for movie raiders is discovering the micro-budgeted indie movies hiding unheralded in the back racks of movie rental stores, overshadowed by mega-branded blockbusters in endless alphabetical listings in streaming services, or buried at 3 am on cable tv. They’re unchampioned by studio marketers or public-relations flacks, and often rely only on the kindness of strangers — or the strangeness of movie nerds — for attention and love. These weird little pics might be lacking in professional slickness or conventional standards of commercial entertainment, but at their best they make up for all of that stuff in individualistic vision, passionate authenticity, and genuine surprises.
Metal Messiah: Born Again Sage, produced, written, directed, and starring Nick Wells (AKA The Phantom Hillbilly) is, for me, that kind of movie.
The broad outline of the premise is as familiar as every Behind the Music episode before the first commercial break: Sage Negadeth is just a small town boy, livin’ in a lonely world (in this case, Oregon City), who dreams of busting out of his stifling high school to become a rock ’n’ roll superstar. Unlike Neil Diamond’s soft-rock aspirations in the snooze-inducing The Jazz Singer — a film Wells mockingly alludes to — Sage’s goal is to rule the heavy metal cosmos, and so he decides to cast his lot with Satan, perform an ad-hoc amateur soul-selling ritual (as one does), and readies himself for demon-assisted success. There are complications, of course, including the twin female challenges of a sexy Born-Again co-ed who tries to convert him to the path of righteousness and a school psychiatrist (who strongly resembles a VHS porn-star) who’d like to throw him into permanent detention, and in the end the whole plan winds up going to Hell. All of which is accompanied by pounding metal performances. Lots of them.
Feeding time at Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
If you’ve read this far, you’ll know if this film is for you or not. But if you’re on the fence, I’d suggest that it’s Wells’s main character — and his performance and scripting of the metalhead Sage — that makes the movie hilarious and authentic, and worth a look even if your favorite band is REO Speedwagon. Pasty, doughy, and bedecked in Iron Maiden regalia seemingly shoplifted from a 1985 merch table, Sage is an impassioned defender of “true metal,” railing against what he sees as false corporate crap and a rigid educational system that perpetuates cultural crappiness. When Wells’s/Sage’s eyes open wide for his declaration that instead of mastering the state-mandated three Rs, “My contribution to society will be headbangin’, hell-raisin’, and drawing pictures of demons and sorcerers,” we believe him — and feel a twinge of loss for our own high school dreams too, regardless of whether they involved screaming on-stage in leather pants and studded wristbands. When Sage proposes a new language for his high-school metal clique — Ozzy means me, myself I; Dio signifies a dude; Doro he, she, her; Slayer becomes a universal term of greeting, valediction, or enthusiasm — we laugh at its absurdity (emphasized by subtitles), but also recognize the truths of its in-crowd community-making. Wells has created a hesher hero with a heart (if not a brain).
For Sage, metal both allows him to create his own identity and to keep himself (relatively) sane in a world that is quickly becoming unrecognizable to him: MM:BAS becomes a film that documents scary transitions — personal, cultural, spiritual — and dramatizes one man-child’s attempt to resist them. The real Oregon City High School may pride itself on its success in transforming adolescents into young adults, but Sage and his cohort have none of it; they’re resolute in their determination not to grow up (which accounts for most of them played by actors who look like they’re in their mid-30s). Sage lectures other characters (and us) on the history of heavy metal, championing thrash, doom, black, and death metals while bemoaning and mocking the rise of more popular, mainstream “lame-ass hair metal” (employing emphatic expletives towards the purveyors of the latter that are inappropriate for some readers of this blog). Even if you don’t know your Anthrax from your Exodus, you’ll appreciate Sage’s lament that metal ain’t what it used to be.
Sage and Black Christ Rock the Old The Know
MM:BAS also documents the bumpy transition into maturity of Oregon itself (and specifically Portland). Band members leave town for greener (and presumably, more affordable) pastures. Sage sings a melancholy ballad while wistfully strolling along the Portland’s Eastbank Esplanade, wondering (in song) what he would do if he could no longer play metal. Sage’s life is marked by the appearance of Portland musical landmarks like The Know (where his band, Black Christ rules the stage — until the next band rocks even harder) and Green Noise Records, both of which have been forced to relocate thanks to gentrification. It may be partly unintentional, but Wells’s film captures Portland on the cusp of transition, ushering in a new environment in which guys like Sage might have to sell their soul to the devil just to keep himself in beer and records.
The Phantom Hillbilly is Comin’ to America
Full disclosure/ Liner note:
I am not a hardcore hesher in the least; at best, I’d describe myself as metal-curious. If you, too, are not a metalhead, you really ought to know that Oregon is a vibrant, vital fist-pumpers’ paradise, with powerhouse label Relapse Records, bands like Red Fang, Agalloch, Witch Mountain, and Toxic Holocaust, and specialty shops like Metal Head (Astoria) and Devout Rcrds (Portland) all calling the state home. Portland is the second most “metal city” in the US, according to Vice/Noisey’s Simon Davis (successfully debunked by Willamette Week, reasserting Portland’s primacy), and the newly relocated The Know and Green Noise Records are alive and well. And Panzergod, a Portland band that blasts its Satanic fury onstage in MM:BAS, have a new 7” that’ll be coming out soon. Maybe it’s time to pick up some vinyl and commence to head-banging?
Slayer, Dios and Doros!
- Written by Phil Oppenheim