About 10 years ago, an odd thing happened. Black metal, a genre of music built upon nihilism and elitism, a genre that had theretofore existed—practically by definition—only on the fringe, began to infiltrate popular culture. Suddenly, corpse paint was appearing as a comedic device on TV sitcoms and Brooklyn bands were exchanging synthesizers for tremolo guitars. There were even symposiums dedicated to the stark philosophy of black metal. In a rush to capitalize on this moment, Hollywood studios became aware of a 1998 book, Lords of Chaos, subtitled The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground.
Written by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, it was (at the time) the most in-depth exploration of the Norwegian black metal scene, including the murders, the church burnings and the bomb threats. A common complaint about the book was—and is—that Moynihan and Søderlind were more interested in telling the story that sounded the best, even if it wasn’t always the most factual version of events. Still, it continues to be considered the definitive chronicle of that scene.
Schadenfreude. No other word better describes the story told in Lords of Chaos. No word better describes the production history of the dramatized, movie version of Lords of Chaos, either. And no word better describes the actual film that is presented in the final cut of Lords of Chaos.
The original project was announced in 2008 as the first English-language film by Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono, famous for such subversive flicks as Suicide Club and Love Exposure. But it wasn’t to be. Before long, the movie was in the hands of music video director Jonas Åkerlund. We will never know Sono’s vision for the film, but Åkerlund decided to dive head-first into the toxic authenticity of the scene.
As explored in the film, authenticity became paramount in Norway’s second-wave black metal scene. This brutal exclusivity made the metal world take notice. It also led to an arms race of sorts; an escalating series of crimes were committed as artists jockeyed for purity position. Deathlike Silence, the scene’s record label of reference, was known for its motto: “No Fun, No Core, No Mosh, No Trend.” And they meant it.
It turns out, black metal means you can never truly move beyond the puerile need to prove that you’re no poser. Åkerlund is no exception. That’s why every press release about this film emphasizes that the director once drummed for first-wave black metal band Bathory. You see, the director is authentic. Rest assured. He’s got the proper credentials to tell the story.
Much like the main character in Lords of Chaos, however, his claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. Yes, Åkerlund did drum for Bathory—once, during the band’s very early days. In less than a month, he was replaced by a drum machine. By the time black metal was really heating up in the 1980s and ’90s, this ex-drummer was directing music videos for Roxette and Madonna. When you think of TRUE NORWEGIAN BLACK METAL, it ain’t “Fingertips ’93.”
The film itself tells the story of the second-wave black metal band Mayhem, focusing on guitarist Øystein Aarseth, aka Euronymous (Rory Culkin). The first half of the movie more or less covers his friendship with Mayhem vocalist Dead (Jack Kilmer), while the second half is more interested in his rivalry with future Mayhem bass player and Burzum figurehead Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen). These relationships slowly turn a subgenre of heavy metal into a story of suicide, church burnings and, eventually, murder.
Personally speaking, I don’t need my biopics to be 100 percent historically accurate. I’d rather see an entertaining movie mired in falsehoods than a boring movie that follows pure facts. Much like the book, Lords of Chaos the movie makes no attempt to tell the real story. Instead, we get the story that sounds best. And what a story it is!
I anticipated that Lords of Chaos would play a bit like Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2003 film Party Monster. For the math teachers out there who like to see the work, the equation looks like this: Culkin + underground ’90s music scene + murder = endlessly quotable film with wild tonal shifts. (Math is a universal truth, of course.)
Make no mistake: Lords of Chaos is not a dramatic masterpiece. Like Party Monster, it could easily be considered a train wreck in terms of impactful, serious storytelling. But it’s hard to take your eyes off it—almost as hard as it is to keep your eyes from rolling when the absurdity of the story starts to sink in. Then again, the black metal scene was all about the absurd.
Åkerlund’s background in music videos translates into the fact that he’s skilled at grabbing the interest of viewers with short attention spans. This helps to keep things moving, even though a good chunk of the secondary characters are underdeveloped at best. Many of them aren’t even properly introduced. This means, unless you’re already familiar with the story, you may not even know who half the peripheral players are, especially in the second part of the movie.
While this could be considered a problem, it isn’t an issue thanks to the performances of Culkin, Cohen and Kilmer. These three show they are more than capable of carrying the narrative weight of the movie while the director shows off various visual techniques.
If you’re familiar with the story and the bands featured in it (Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor, Darkthrone, Thorns), then you’ll quickly realize that none of their actual music is used in the film (with the exception of a few Mayhem covers, performed by some for-hire scab band). How did this happen? Well, the surviving members of the featured bands refused to let Åkerlund have their music. Most of them have also decried the movie. But would you expect any different? Three decades later, authenticity still dominates the scene, and can make or break your image (or movie, apparently).
Should you go to see Lords of Chaos when it premieres at Sun-Ray Cinema this weekend? Yes; yes, you should. The movie is visually appealing and well-acted. And if it’s a bit daft, it’s daft in the most entertaining ways possible. You might not glean much useful information about the history of black metal, but the film does provide killer quotable dialogue to add to your repertoire of in-jokes. Before long, you’ll be haranguing friend and foe alike with the reproach: “I thought you were true Norwegian black metal!”