Heavy metal is just made for film, isn’t it? From This Is Spinal Tap to Anvil: The Story of Anvil and 2020’s excellent The Sound of Metal, the musical idiom made for thrashing has been the source of some first-rate moviemaking, and not just as the butt of its jokes. Netflix’s new release Metal Lords, from writer-producer D.B. Weiss and director Peter Sollett, proves a worthy entry in the metal-film canon, but at its core it’s really a tender, gently comic coming-of-age tale anchored by strong performances from its three young leads.
Marching-band drummer Kevin narrates and serves as the film’s primary protagonist. A slight, bespectacled, string-haired nerd, Kevin finds himself targeted by bullies at school and neglected at home. Despite being on the outs at school, he’s an earnest, affable kid looking for an emotional outlet. Actor Jaeden Martell plays him with an age-appropriate, guileless charm, giving the film a grounded center in a perfectly plausible reality. He’s easy to root for.
Kevin’s new best friend Hunter (Adrian Greensmith) is more trouble, a brooding, angsty loner whose mom left him and whose commitment to heavy metal is sincere and all-consuming. A budding talent on the guitar, Hunter’s the type who quotes Tennyson and Dante and uses vocabulary like “exsanguinate” in the first line of the lyrics to his opus “Machinery of Torment.” Hunter brings both ‘tude and mood. His initiative inspires the more passive Kevin to join his band, Skullf*cker, and pursue their art with zeal. Greensmith is not only adept with his instrument but appropriately abrasive to others.
Any metal band, of course, needs more than drums and guitar. With Kevin a mere tyro on the sticks and Hunter an overindulgent lead guitarist, the newly-formed bandmates audition for a bassist. The most unlikely of candidates eventually turns out to be schoolmate Emily (Isis Hainsworth), recently resigned from marching band with an unambiguous “F*ck your sh*tty band!” She isn’t your typical headbanging bassist: instead, she brings her cello to the mix. Her delicate mental health requires constant moderation and medication, but she and Kevin find some common ground.
While Kevin and Emily take up an awkward friendship-romance, zealous Hunter is less convinced that Skullf*cker can win the local Battle of the Bands with a cello-playing-girl anchoring the bottom. He “gets” the heavy-metal mantra, as he proves with a commitment to its tenets that informs his speech class and earns him unwanted attention from the school’s bully. Kevin, meanwhile, starts to earn a little attention with his newfound skill and wonders if Hunter’s aggressively anti-social isolation is the right path.
If this sounds a bit like a generic high-school coming-of-age film, you’re absolutely right. Metal Lords isn’t just about the metal. It’s a tale of friendship, romance, alliance, and collaboration. Hallway bullying, house parties, social (and sexual) awkwardness, car chases, and authority figures make for a good deal of the characters’ interactions, and each of those is a well-worn trope of the genre. That said, the script and direction by Weiss, one of Game of Thrones’s showrunners, doesn’t resort too much to cliché and gives each of the central trio their own motivations.
In fact, only a few of Metal Lords’ minor characters are stock types, and the protagonists are each given plenty of room and time to mature. Kevin not only learns his craft but to stand up for himself and his friends. Hunter learns that his devotion to his precious metal mantra isn’t enough alone to inspire his collaborators. And Emily learns that she, too, can make her own contribution even to what is norminally a misogynist, masculinist domain.
In Metal Lords, heavy metal might be the passion that brings together three diverse teens looking for purpose and companionship, but it’s not the point of the film per se. In other words, you don’t need to have a vinyl collection of Judas Priest, Megadeth, Black Sabbath, and Metallica, to enjoy Metal Lords. The progression of the trio from their first fumbles and forays to an ecstatic, if ultimately disastrous, Battle of the Bands performance, makes for a compelling journey whether your musical tastes run top-40 or far to the left of the dial. In the end, music is all about community and collaboration. Kevin’s growth and confidence on the drum kit in particular is impressive, as Martell used the lockdown to practice religiously in his Airbnb. By the film’s final act he is hitting fills and anchoring the band’s bottom with aplomb. Executive music producer Tom Morello and composer Carl Restivo’s work with the young actors on their performance skills deserves its own acclaim.
It’s almost unfortunate that we get the group’s only uninterrupted performance in an end-credits sequence. A metal trio with a cellist as bass, as it turns out, makes for a pretty thrashin’ sound. I’d gladly queue up more in a playlist. In other words, it works, even if it requires a little rebranding, so to speak, and so does Metal Lords. You don’t need to be a headbanger to appreciate it; if you have a little heart, or even a big one, you’ll find its characters worth caring about and cheering for.