A music documentary that doesn’t play like a pop culture history piece, a kind of glorified news reel, is actually more difficult than one might think. There are tons of music documentaries which coast on the interesting aspects of their subject’s lives, while spending little time to add anything original to the telling of that story. This Is Gwar does something far more difficult than it seems because its subject, Gwar, is not just a band, but a cultural phenomena.
Director Scott Barber is trying to tell the story of a group of creative weirdos looking for an outlet for their monster movie-fueled imaginations, and form a band less as a touring project and more as performance art group. Telling that story within the familiar structure of a music documentary is no easy feat. In the case of Gwar, though, the filmmaker is dealing with a very familiar subject, one with a ton of notoriety, about which most people know very little in the way of substantive details. What is more, this phenomenon, Gwar, featured many individuals adding their own stories and creativity over time, and while this is a story of triumph and longevity, it is also one of loss, frustration, manipulation, and even tragedy. This Is Gwar doesn’t have one interesting story to tell, but many, and somehow it manages to translate a complicated and distinct history into a compelling, and emotional narrative. The film is not a nostalgia piece, but a real document not only to Gwar themselves, but to the struggle for creative folks to work together and persevere in the face of a culture, ego, and finances.
Like many Americans, I heard about Gwar long before I knew much about either metal or punk, thanks to their infiltrating into pop-culture and the culture wars of the ’90s. I had a vague idea of who and what they were just as they appeared on Beavis and Butthead, a move that catapulted them even further into the public eye. However, despite knowing who they were and what basically they did, I wasn’t hugely familiar with the band until they played This Is Hardcore Fest in 2013. I didn’t get to meet anyone in the band more than briefly at that festival, though backstage, just before they went on, I was playfully pretend-assaulted by Oderus Urungus and then got a picture with Beefcake The Mighty, also pretending to assault me. It was awesome. I knew about the intensity of their performance, the theatrics of it, and that its origins were in the hardcore punk scene, but I was ignorant of the true family of creatives who came together to make this vision a reality.
When This Is Gwar reveals that the origins of the band were a group of squatter artists, obsessed with B movies, trying to make their own film, it was as if everything I had gleaned from a distance about the collective made sense. The film starts with their murky beginnings and then leads the viewer through their surprisingly complicated history, line up changes after line up change, chaos between various founding members of the group, and even changes to the very sound and substance of the band. Though this history is complicated and thick with details, the film never lost me who, while familiar with the band slightly, was entirely ignorant to these details. The interviews are immediately detailed filled and interesting, there is an impressive amount of footage from those early days, and the people sharing are not afraid to immediately be truthful about the best and the worst of their experiences.
Yes, the film is of course the history of this particular band, who it reveals as a collaboration not just of musicians but more essentially of artists in both traditional and non-traditional media. It also, as the band struggles with the media, culture, financials, and of course their own efforts to be creative and productive as a collective, becomes a text from which we can understand all the complexities of a creative life. What Gwar does might not strike many as “art” but that is almost certainly remnants of gross class bias. These are at least artisans if not insane artists, using the materials they can afford to craft monsters, mayhem and blood. Not only is their performance a spectacle however, it often carries a message, even if a crude one. Gwar has an ethos, and they display that ethos through explosions of gore and cum, much to the delight of their fans.
So, there must in the film be those details perhaps best saved for a puff piece, because the folks seeing this are very often the fans. They want to see the fun retro footage and they want to hear the craziest tour stories. The film is aware though that this group of people in Gwar, almost from day one, struggled with and AGAINST each other. There were fears of being disrespected, of having ideas stolen or tainted, of people wondering who exactly was in charge of this operation. This is Gwar highlights the strong personalities, and is unafraid to show its audience how brilliant these perveyors of filth were and are, but also how their own failings hindered and hurt the collective. There is a tone of joy and celebration here, but pain as well. People gave long portions of their life to make Gwar happen, and not all of them feel good about that relationship, and many more feel both grateful and wounded by it.
This film then is, for me, a real triumph of form. It is at its heart a music documentary, a featured piece on a specific band. However, in order to do that complicated and diverse story justice it has to do cultural criticism and history and tackle all manner of issues that artists face when they create together. The film creates a narrative that allows for the depths of love and pain to shine through, and allow folks who gave themselves to Gwar to be fully present. It is a difficult balancing act, and I was impressed by how deftly it was handled. While Gwar is a story of longevity and commitment in face of stunning loss, this film is also a testament to truth telling, to allowing your subject to be all the good and the bad they truly are. Thus, This Is Gwar manages to be seriously badass while also being incredibly human and humane. Who knew one could have this compassionate a film feature so much fake blood and cum.