‘Metal Lords’ Review: A Wannabe Headbanger That Goes Bust

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In a film that sings the praises of heavy metal music and reveres those who create it, “Metal Lords” stumbles in its ability to truly rock. Director Peter Sollett’s coming-of-age feature centered on two teen outcasts who form a hardcore metal band explores some fairly unexpected, dark recesses given its lighthearted, comedically-inclined premise. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll are on the set list, yet it plays too fast and loose, failing to achieve a good balance to make the chords reverberate louder. And just as it begins to get into its groove, the song abruptly ends.

Kevin (Jaeden Martell) and Hunter (Adrian Greensmith) have been friends since elementary school, suffering together through the indignities of adolescence and the pains of impending adulthood. However, they’ll be tested like never before in high school. After Hunter’s mom left him and his plastic surgeon father (Brett Gelman) a few years prior, Hunter turned to heavy metal music for comfort and got Kevin into it as well. Bands like Metallica, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, whose posters line the walls of the pair’s inner sanctum (the basement at Hunter’s house) are role models. But unfortunately, their bad-ass acts of rebellion and middle-fingers to authority have inspired a bad attitude to fester inside Hunter, compounding his feelings of abandonment and causing him to be caustic to others.

While the duo debate forming a band with Kevin on drums and Hunter on lead vocals and guitar, things don’t kick into gear until the arrival of Scottish transfer student Emily (Isis Hainsworth). She’s a quick learner on the cello and has a short fuse when she doesn’t take her meds — a perfect prescription for a rock star in the making. Around this same time, their school resurrects the long-dormant tradition of a Battle of the Bands. This naturally spurs Hunter’s desire to springboard a potential win into superstardom. However, despite Kevin’s encouragement, the resistant Hunter would need to first accept Emily into their impenetrable circle. This no-brainer decision brings about tension and fissures in the friendship, leading Kevin to question his sense of fidelity.

From the jocks that bully our heroes to the portrayal of a high school caste system, Sollett and screenwriter D.B. Weiss make a mess utilizing outdated stereotypes and dumbed-down archetypes. Instead of keeping conflicts internally motivated, they frequently pull from conveniently created external obstacles. Comedic flourishes are handled pretty poorly, inducing more cringes than cackles. For a long majority of the short run time, we question our allegiance to the protagonists: Hunter for being just as big a bully as the ones who torment him and his buddy, and Kevin for tolerating Hunter’s soul-crushing behavior. It’s tied into their arcs to prove their mettle while perfecting their metal, but these themes fail to come together in their execution.

Sentimental leanings are hand-waved as the film rushes through meaningful moments that should impact not only character development, but also resonance for the audience. Though it tackles big issues like drug dependence, sex and mental illness, this broader commentary is either muted or hollowed out by lackluster, flimsy resolutions. Believability becomes a pressing problem, particularly in the last half of the film, when we’re forced to forgive a few illogical elements dealing with Hunter’s anger issues that lead to his dad-imposed stint in rehab and Kevin’s rescuing of him. Even Joe Manganiello, who plays hard-rocker-turned-psychologist Dr. Nix, can’t help save the material from itself, though he does add some heart.

The filmmakers do earn some redemption. While it’s mostly relegated to the third act, Sollett and company capture the evocative feeling this style of music creates for its fans in a visually compelling, creative manner. Sollett, cinematographer Anette Haellmigk and editor Steve Edwards borrow a page from “Rocketman” by visually contextualizing the transcendent spirit of music with the musician literally levitated by the crowd’s uplifting energy. Shots from inside the growing mosh pit during this pivotal sequence make us feel like we’re a participant losing ourselves in the booming sound and musicianship. It also helps that the film’s original song “Machinery of Torment” totally wails. The end credits, showing the band practicing Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” send us off on the right note. It’s vibrantly constructed, even stripped of the grandeur of a stage show setting.

It’s clear the filmmakers love and honor the artistry behind the music: “Metal Lords” features a massive soundtrack, courtesy of executive music producer Tom Morello and music supervisor Denise Luiso, that blends classic and modern acts, as well as a slew of cameos from industry icons. That’s too bad, since the film deals its main characters a disservice in the way they’re poorly constructed as compromised, complicated beings. And that’s nothing to give a devil-horned salute to.

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