After several rounds on the festival circuit, director Adam Dubin’s documentary on the early days of Bay Area thrash metal, Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Trash Metal Story, finally saw release last week on DVD and VOD from MVD. Featuring interviews with Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Exodus, Testament, Death Angel, Possessed and many more of the luminaries of that scene, and narrated by Brian Posehn, it examines the community and music which would spread its influence worldwide.
“In the early 1980’s, a small group of dedicated Bay Area headbangers shunned the hard rock of MTV and Hollywood hairspray bands in favor of a more dangerous brand of metal that became known as thrash!”
Right off the bat, it’s worth noting that Murder in the Front Row, while is not quite “for fans only,” certainly leans toward inside baseball. During the opening montage of musicians introducing themselves and what band they’re in, Slayer’s Kerry King laughs and says, “Everyone watching this knows who I am,” and that’s pretty much the tone of the entire documentary: either you know who these folks are, or you don’t, and if you don’t, this isn’t really going to offer a lot to justify why they’re important.
Now, there are exceptions, such as the segment on Metallica bassist, Cliff Burton. That is a perfectly-constructed portion, wherein you learn who he was, what he did, how talented he was, and what he did for both Metallica and the genre as a whole. Literally, he was so fucking good that Metallica decamped from Los Angeles to San Francisco, because the only way he’d join the band was if they came to him. It’s maybe five minutes of the film, but it’s astonishingly effective. If I had only been casually acquainted with what he did, I’d have immediately tracked down “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” to see what all the fuss was about.
Murder in the Front Row is arranged really well, however. Its chronological path traces the evolution from a bunch of metalheads listening to UFO and Diamond Head records to playing parties to becoming a local force to taking over the worldwide heavy music scene in just a few short years with an eye toward the grand picture, while still managing to look at the individuals who made it all happen.
Exodus and Metallica are the names upon which the film focuses, which isn’t a surprise, given that the film takes its title from a lyric in the former’s “Bonded By Blood,” and the latter turned into one of the biggest rock bands in the world. However, the film manages to talk with seemingly anyone who was anyone within the Bay Area thrash scene, and even when that isn’t possible because someone has passed on, they still manage to talk to a relative with memories of stories told.
It’s a refreshingly comprehensive look at a scene. At no point are there any glaring exceptions. So often, in documentaries such as this, there’s some figure important to the history of it all that doesn’t want to appear on camera, but here – it’s everyone. Every member of Metallica. Dave Mustaine, for heaven’s sake. Any band in the scene is represented in some way, shape, or form. People who put out zines. Photographers. Fans. It’s great to see so many folk sharing stories and just being so enthusiastic about it.
That said – it’s insular. Anything which looks specifically at a scene, and the people within it, can lean really closely to being exclusionary to those not already in the know, and Murder in the Front Row is definitely close to that. While there’s a pretty good look at the bands from which all these musicians drew their influences early on, and an explanation of how those musicians then interpreted those influences into something new, it would’ve been great to hear from some of those influences as to how they viewed these new upstarts.
Along those lines, but on the other end, Murder in the Front Row certainly demonstrates how Metallica (and to a lesser extent, Exodus) spread the thrash gospel worldwide, but it just kind of leaves everything there. While rock docs can definitely lean too much into contemporary talking heads analyzing the impact of whatever band, genre, or label being discussed has had, this particular film could definitely benefit from current bands speaking on how this scene affected their listening habits. If nothing else, I would love to hear from members of Corrosion of Conformity and Suicidal Tendencies talking about how thrash affected hardcore and brought about crossover.
That said, as a fan of heavy music, Murder in the Front Row was a total blast. I’ve been waiting to see this for a good long while, and while it might not appeal to the general public, I enjoyed the hell out of the documentary. If nothing else, I suppose being left wanting more is probably a good thing. Much like a great thrash jam, it’s better that it hits fast and hard and leaves an impression, rather than wondering when it’s going to finally end. The archival footage and photos in the film are worth seeing this alone. It’s so rare to see so many shots with clarity and audio that’s not blown to hell. While it might be slightly opaque to outsiders, those who know should seek out Murder in the Front Row immediately.
POSERS MUST DIE!
Murder in the Front Row is available on DVD from MVD Visual.