Credited with reimagining and popularizing the traditional Italian hand gesture of malocchio (“evil eye”) into what’s today (in)famously known as “devil’s horns” in heavy metal and hard rock, Ronnie James Dio was undoubtedly one of the legendary artists of this scene, one who had presented many facets to explore. Sadly passing away at the age of 67 in 2010 after a battle with stomach cancer, the legacy of Dio has never even slightly waned. And yet, although the majority of the metalheads are likely to be quite knowledgeable about the mysterious Italian-American who was born and raised in a small upstate New York farming community, and certainly familiar with his lasting contributions to this too-frequently marginalized musical style, few may have a comprehensive understanding of the man thanks to the scattered nature of information that has come out across the years. Fortunate for such fans, then, Don Argott and Demian Fenton’s documentary Dio: Dreamers Never Die offers a more complete look at “The Man on the Silver Mountain,” gathering littered information into a cogent, in-depth portrait.
Mostly known for his collaboration with prototypical heavy metal acts like Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and Black Sabbath before finally lining up his group (simply called Dio), and for his extraordinary singing abilities, his epic, larger-than-life on-stage persona, and relatability as a frontman who could easily unleash the wildest dreams of his audience and inspire them to embark upon imaginary journeys to the days of dungeons and dragons, dark castles, and damsels in distress, Dio was foremost a narrator of hope and faith for his fans. And indeed, adopting this mode is precisely the right approach for Argott and Fenton, as they shape this docu-portrait into an exciting act of storytelling, one of a single man’s life and achievements and which at its core isn’t too far from a true-life version of the fables he spun in song. To that end, Dreamers Never Die takes viewers back to before Dio turned into the metal forefather he’s regarded as today, crafting a genesis tale of how and where it all began.
That being the case, in telling the story of the legendary musician’s decades-long career, Argott and Fenton choose a straightforward, chronological (AKA, generic) structure that viewers have come to expect from this type of tale, constructed from familiar talking-head interviews with Dio’s bandmates, friends (just to name a few: Tony Iommi, Rob Halford, Roger Glover, Sebastian Bach, Lita Ford, Jack Black), and, perhaps most importantly, his widow and manager Wendy. These interactions help delineate a multifaceted portrait about the particular rockstar styling of an immense character who, unlike so many of his contemporaries, never cared to involve himself with such banalities as rampant drug consumption or chasing women, and who always remained uniquely dedicated to music above all. Whether in presenting Dio as a voracious book reader, a funny, down-to-earth personality, a confident and perfectionistic fantasist (who not many headbangers may know began his career as ‘50s doo-wop crooner), even before The Beatles stepped into the spotlight, Dreamers Never Die is full of exciting stories and memories, both heartwarming and bittersweet, and a smattering of archival footage and recorded interviews with Ronnie that no heavy metal fan (or those with an appetite for expanding their music perspective and history) should be able to resist. And of course, as any rich music documentary must do, Dio: Dreamers Never Die also succeeds in capturing a broader panorama about the history of rock music — from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll to the hair metal emergence of L.A.’s Sunset Strip to MTV’s ‘80s glory days to the decline of metal stardom — alongside Dio’s on- and off-stage story.
Aesthetically, Argott and Fenton admittedly skew quite conventional, but it’s clear that their priority and commitment here is rather to assemble a full portrait of this quite singular subject, and in that regard, few viewers — metalhead or otherwise — should emerge disappointed. In one of the film’s recordings, we hear Dio expressing in detail ideas about his work, stating: “I’m a narrator. I give people avenues which they can go down. Safe avenues.” Argott and Fenton likewise provide such safe avenues for the fandom of this mystical rockstar to delve into, ripe in their explorations. And if Dio is ultimately rendered here as a kind-hearted and humble but powerful messenger of faith in oneself and the importance of finding purpose in living, Dio: Dreamers Never Die also captures this particular dreamy joyfulness. It’s an unassuming, respectful tribute, a genuinely feel-good story that serves as an appropriate salute to the life and art of Ronnie James Dio, replete with double devil’s horns up in the air.
Originally published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 5.