When the whole Norwegian church-burning uproar exploded across the metal scene in the early Nineties, I was busy writing for Terrorizer, so well placed to watch it unfold. I remember poking fun of the black metal scene for taking itself so seriously in several of my write-ups at the time, but I was also struck by a) how committed these kids were to their cause, b) how stupid and naïve they were, and c) how desperate they were to raise their profile and sell distinctly underwhelming records. Over the years, my opinion of the music has changed, and some of that primal croaking has wormed its way into my favour, and Jonas Akerlund’s bleak but excellent film pretty much confirms all the rest.
Inspired I assume by Michael Moynihan’s brilliant Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground book, Lords of Chaos is of course chaotic and noisy and darkly funny, not to mention deeply disturbing and often rather moving in places. It’s also very well made and executed, with decent production values and a cast obviously committed to their roles. Rory Culkin and Emory Cohen convince as Mayhem guitarist and bassist respectively, Euronymous and Varg, and the film dramatically recreates some of their best-known interactions, from photo-shoots and interviews to church burning and murder. Akerlund is especially unflinching when it comes to the violence, with the aptly-named Dead’s suicide a particularly grisly moment.
But the film’s real power lies in its capturing of the sometimes tragic stupidity of youth, of teenagers trying to express themselves in the face of societal indifference, and of murderers who still live with their parents and make people take their shoes off before they come into their houses. Even that most of us know how it ends doesn’t detract from the compelling vicariousness of what unfolds, and the fact that Akerlund and his cast make some of these thoroughly sleazy characters so relatable is testament to his craft.
Of course, there will be many black metal purists out there who can pick holes in this from a factual and contextual perspective, but I can’t pretend to know enough about that scene to really comment beyond the fact that Lords of Chaos is eminently watchable and entertaining. It opens with the words, ‘Based on truth… lies… and what actually happened,’ which seems to acknowledge that artistic license has been taken with some of the events for the sake of cinema, but the film-makers have still hewn close enough to the madness of that period to create a genuinely riveting two hours. Ian Glasper