Few bands deserve a tell-all documentary as much as GWAR, the metal band/art collective whose members identify as intergalactic barbarians obsessed with murder, sodomy, and masturbation, complete with giant latex puppet stage shows infamous for spraying attendees with fake bodily fluids. Shudder’s documentary This Is GWAR, at one hour and 50 minutes, suggests there’s enough material for an entire docuseries: with so many band members and changes over the group’s almost 40 years of existence, the feature omits many key details known to fans. But that’s because it correctly focuses on the contentious, foundational relationship between Dave Brockie (a.k.a. Oderus Urungus) and Hunter Jackson (a.k.a. Techno Destructo).
Brockie, who died in 2014, is no longer around to defend himself, but he left behind a lot of footage that pretty unambiguously expresses his thoughts and personality. Jackson, conversely, has no compunction about speaking ill of the dead. Most of the other prominent band members who speak on camera offer a more measured portrait of the two, painting a picture of Brockie as an unabashed spotlight-seeker at the expense of others, while acknowledging that his creative genius is enough of a blessing to the group that they’re not as resentful as Jackson.
But Jackson—mostly—has the right to be aggrieved, if anybody does. GWAR was conceived as a result of Brockie’s original band, Death Piggy, using Jackson’s movie props for a proposed intergalactic barbarian film. In the end, Brockie’s vision for a band trumped Jackson’s for a movie, and even when GWAR finally got to make the long-form music videos Phallus In Wonderland and Skulhedface, Jackson didn’t get the level of creative control that was long due to him. (This Is GWAR will likely make both fans and newbies clamor for proper rereleases of those videos, which look fascinating as cultural artifacts.)
As the documentary litigates their longstanding friction, there’s a double-standard at play. Although GWAR operates a lot like the Troma of music, the band seems to be mostly run as a collective with everyone’s input rather than the kind of top-down control that Lloyd Kaufman executes at his movie studio—except when it came to GWAR’s media appearances, where Brockie typically seized the spotlight. GWAR may have professed equality, but definitely operated as a hierarchy, with some members simply dubbed slaves. Jackson aspired to co-lead stature with Brockie in a way that he likely could have accomplished—if he was as actively narcissistic as his counterpart. Yet had the pair communicated as well to each other as they do to the camera, events might have gone differently.
Mind you, there’s no Behind The Music arc here because, as every member constantly reiterates, nobody ever got rich being in GWAR. It’s baffling that they weren’t able to merchandise the hell out of the band’s concept to great success, but then again, this was the ’90s, and the group was led by an intractable frontman. GWAR’s label, Metal Blade Records, lost a lucrative buyout bid by Time Warner simply because Brockie refused to remove a song entitled “Baby Dick Fuck” from their album. And yet, the band’s taboo-shattering tactics were so over the top that the joke was really on anybody taking it too seriously.
Obviously, that refusal to compromise came at a price. Various GWAR members suggest they never had the chance to sell out—but given their heyday during the advent of Parental Advisory stickers and basic-cable censorship, in retrospect some choices seems more obviously advantageous than others. It’s notable—and sadly ignored by the movie—that the similar, more PG-rated Green Jelly managed to break through, despite objectively worse music. Meanwhile, when GWAR finally did make a toy deal, it was with an embarrassing joke of a company called Shocker Toys—ephemera that’s well known to fans, but again one of many stories not included in this movie.
Director Scott Barber (The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story) may have chosen a title similar to This Is Spinal Tap, but aside from both bands’ aptitude for showmanship, the similarities end there. He’s less interested in following GWAR around on tour than he is in letting its band members relive past glories and relitigate old miscommunications. Don’t expect any discussion of side projects The Dave Brockie Experience, X-Cops, or even much about the music itself beyond a few snippets to illustrate the group’s occasional musical shifts. A newcomer to GWAR could come away from this movie not even knowing, for example, that their hit power ballad was called “The Road Behind.” (Imagine a Red Hot Chili Peppers movie only playing a tiny bit of “Under the Bridge” and not identifying it in any significant way.) But they will definitely come away understanding the emotions that fueled the fire.
Barber sprinkles in a few celebrity endorsements from the likes of Alex Winter and Weird Al, but they’re minor asides and barely relevant. The focus here is on GWAR’s perception of themselves, and not so much how others saw them.
Barber also examines the band’s roots in ’80s Virginia, and the art school scene of the time that reflected the conflict between Boomer art history elitism and the aesthetic interests of kids growing up on comic books, album cover art, and Frank Frazetta. A band like GWAR in many ways perfectly summed up the defiant aesthetic of artistically gifted students sick of not being taken seriously because of their personal interests. Now that the cultural pendulum has swung all the way in the other direction, with defiant stupidity and deliberate “anti-elitism” as the norm, a contemporary band might have to take a more erudite approach to piss people off as much as this one did.
But again, that’s a larger conversation that This Is GWAR doesn’t include in its intra-band squabbles. For all the documentary reveals about the band, it leaves you asking further questions, and wanting much more—an apt metaphor for a band that created an impressive legacy, and yet whose members rarely came to a consensus.