Movies and music are a match made in heaven. The earliest silent films were accompanied by live pianists because even then it was understood that the great magic of movies had something to do with sound and moving images coming together in a fantastic new simulacrum that was greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a profound realization that can be found at the first flowering of the greatest art form in the world.
The meeting of music and movies was a love-at-first-sight-affair, and cinema’s evergreen romance with musical theater, and the development of distinctive original soundtracks and scores, are all different expressions of the fundamental compatibility of melodies with motion on screen. The advent of the modern rock music documentary might be traced back to groundbreaking American 1960s and 1970s works like Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Don’t Look Back and Gimme Shelter. These pioneering works belong on any list of best rock docs, and so does 1986’s Heavy Metal Parking Lot – a cult classic film that has achieved legendary status in the last three decades. The short film was back on movie screens last year during a tour celebrating its 30th anniversary, and Heavy Metal Parking Lot was recently added to the free documentaries available at Open Culture – a free online media platform.
Set to the crunchy caveman riffing of Judas Priest’s ode to outrage, “You Got Another Thing Comin’,” Heavy Metal Parking Lot opens with a parade of muscle cars, Volkswagens, junkers and pickups streaming into the titular parking lot. The British heavy metal band’s hit single was originally released on their 1982 album Screaming for Vengeance, and Heavy Metal Parking Lot captures the squalid, screwy scene at the afternoon tailgate party outside of Judas Priest’s 1986 tour stop at the Capital Centre in Largo, Md.
The movie’s first screening was at a music club called DC Space, and it built its reputation through an underground network of metalheads and film lovers who duped and shared the movie over and over again via VHS tape recordings. Long before the internet, this was a movie that was rumored through word-of-mouth and shared hand-to-hand one tape at a time on its way to legendary status. Heavy Metal Parking Lot eventually enjoyed heavy rotation on Nirvana’s tour bus, and a DVD release in 2007 found two hours of bonus footage packaged along with the original 17-minute film.
Ninety percent of the documentary filmmaker’s battle is knowing what to point the camera at. Nowadays there are hundreds of documentaries available online and on television, and the biggest difference between the stinkers and the treasures is subject matter. The shirtless dudes, frizzy haired babes, mullet-ed, mustachioed macho men and groupie girls that make up the pantheon of metalheads here are an outrageous gaggle of characters participating in a rite of sex, drugs, alcohol, cars, crashing electric guitars and screeching vocals. Director John Heyn lenses the longhairs from the window of a car as he cruises the parking lot to a chorus of “woos” and “yeahs” and cries that “Priest rules!” We see lots of raised fists and devil-horn hand signs, but all the adolescent aggression is tempered with lots of laughter and the kind of camaraderie that’s born of Budweiser, blue jeans and getting together with your best friends to see your favorite band. Of course the highlights here are Heyn’s one-on-one interviews with the kids waiting to get into the concert. One shirtless teen identifies himself as “Graham,” insisting that “I’m on acid, that’s where I am… They should legalize drugs. That is a fact… They should make a joint so big it fits across America. And everybody smoke it.” One concert goer ranks Judas Priest at the top of the metal hierarchy followed by Iron Maiden. Another teen calls Madonna “a dick.”
If Heyn only captured people doing things we could laugh at, Heavy Metal Parking Lot would be a comedy curio at best or even a work of exploitation. However, the real magic here – and the reason why Heavy Metal Parking Lot is still finding an audience 30 years after its initial release – is because in the midst of all the hijinks and hormones, this is an utterly charming, endlessly quotable movie about the people who love this loud liberating music and the sometimes silly but super sincere lifestyle that surrounds it. Priest rules.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot can be viewed for free at www.openculture.com.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.