by Patrick Bromley
Ok, that's kind of a joke. But only kind of. The 1981 Canadian film Heavy Metal, based on the cult magazine of the late 1970s, exists largely in the public memory these days as the rare R-rated animated feature -- an excuse to show cartoon boobs. It is adolescent fantasy on a grand scale, in which even the nerdiest teen can become a muscular hero who kills monsters and beds not one but two buxom beauties in the same day. It's loud music and violence, the stuff every basement-dwelling, D&D playing kid dreamed of in the 1980s. It's the rare movie that makes good not just on its title, but on its cool poster, too. It's a film that could only exist in the '80s.
This was something of a holy grail movie for me growing up. It was unavailable commercially for a number of years, I'm assuming because of all the music licensing. My older brother and his friends -- exactly the kind of role-playing metalheads from whom the movie was designed -- had a bootleg copy one of them had obtained at a con that they would pass around, which is how I first saw it. The questionable legality of the VHS, coupled with the film's R-rated content, made it feel like forbidden fruit to little kid me. A few years later I was able to secure my own copy when I recorded a double feature of Heavy Metal and the Monkees' Head (neither available on VHS at the time) overnight on TNT, and that VHS became one of my most prized possessions. Then, in high school, an amazing thing happened: there was a Heavy Metal resurgence, with the film not only finally getting a home video release, but a theatrical re-release as well. I was able to see at Chicago's now-defunct McClurg Court, at that time one of the biggest and best-sounding screens in the entire city. It remains one of my favorite theatrical screenings of my life.
The director Adam Green is fond of saying that movies are "picture and sound." What he's referring to specifically is when people think they know how to watch rough cuts of movies but can't because the picture and/or the sound are unfinished. Yes, there is plot and dialogue and theme and characterization and all that stuff, but when you get down to it he's right: movies are picture and sound. I had that constantly running through my mind as I revisited Heavy Metal this time, because that's exactly what the movie provides: dazzling images and cool sound. The animation, which I'm sure some viewers will consider dated in 2022, is consistently impressive and imaginative, employing a variety of styles and techniques. The soundtrack rules, showcasing songs by Sammy Hagar, Cheap Trick, Devo, and Stevie Nicks, among others. Beyond the rock music on the soundtrack, though, there's a really cool score by Elmer Bernstein and incredible sound design, which is really highlighted on the 4K UHD. Heavy Metal is a true visual and sonic experience. It's Picture and Sound. It's Pure Cinema.