I have to admit, when I saw the trailer for Lords of Chaos, the new fictionalized portrayal of black metal legends Mayhem, I got pretty excited. Visually the film looks great; it’s based on (and named after) one of the best books about the Norwegian black metal scene; and it was directed by Jonas Åkerlund, who in addition to directing to some of my all-time favorite weird music videos (including this one for Rammstein) has as much extreme metal cred as any filmmaker in the business — he was the drummer and a founding member of Bathory, a Swedish black metal band that was a prime influence on Mayhem and the entire Norwegian scene. And I love that — if the trailer is to be believed — the film doesn’t lose sight of the fact that, for all their later grandiose talk of Satanism and musical purity, the people who started this scene were initially just a bunch of party-hardy kids drinking beer and playing metal in their parents’ basements.
Lords of Chaos opens in American theaters today, and reviews so far are, to put it kindly, mixed. The film has a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t bad, but the music press has been particularly harsh in its assessment, which doesn’t bode well. (Several current members of Mayhem apparently hate the film, too, for what it’s worth.) This review by Stereogum’s Patrick Lyons is particularly damning. If Lyons is to be believed, the film lets its characters off the hook way too easily for their violent, nihilistic and ultimately fascist world views — while at the same time doing a lousy job of accurately capturing what Norwegian black metal actually sounded like, which is weird considering Åkerlund’s bona fides. Rolling Stone also came down pretty hard on the film, though I find their criticisms a bit more suspect; the writer devotes almost an entire paragraph to dismissing Euronymous’ use of the phrase “True Norwegian Black Metal” as unrealistic, when anyone who’s read anything about Mayhem knows that this is exactly the sort of pompous locution he loved to use.
Anyway, my feeling for now is that I’m going to reserve judgment until I’ve actually seen the film — and maybe once I do, I’ll post a review here sharing my thoughts. It’s certainly true that telling the story of Mayhem in a way that’s accurate but doesn’t glorify all the awful shit they did is going to require a delicate balancing act — one that I’m not sure a guy like Åkerlund, who’s a brilliant visual stylist but not the most seasoned feature-length storyteller, can pull off. If the film sets up founding guitarist Euronymous as a sympathetic anti-hero and murderous, church-burning bassist Varg Vikernes as the cartoon villain — which it sounds like might be the case — then that’ll be disappointing. But it could also be a fascinating depiction of how easy it is for confused young people to make the leap from rebellious behavior that’s mostly symbolic — which, let’s face it, every confused young person in human history has done — to behavior that’s actually dangerous and destructive. There’s a good cautionary tale in the history of Mayhem — I hope Lords of Chaos tells it.