Metal Lords blunders plenty, but its blend of heavy metal and heavy feels makes for an imperfect but heartfelt affair.
New Netflix film Metal Lords opens with its lead protagonist — the slight and bespectacled Kevin (Jaeden Martell) — thrashing hardcore on a drum kit, doing his best impersonation of a heavy metal rocker. Before the viewer even has time to contemplate how a kid this dorky wound up in a place like this, the image pauses and voiceover narration basically addresses this very question. That the film doesn’t utilize a record scratch when introducing this freeze frame is a welcome bit of restraint, and the only moment where such exists.
There is something decidedly old-fashioned about Metal Lords, an overly earnest teen comedy that wears its heart on its sleeve to a degree that would make the likes of Superbad and Booksmart blush, even as they mined similar territory for maximum emotional effect. Even in premise, the movie feels like a relic from a bygone era: the story of two social outsiders who seek to gain respect through heavy metal music, a genre that hasn’t been popular with its target audience for a good 20 years. Well, make that one of its outsiders: the aforementioned Kevin is simply participating in an effort to show support for his best friend, Hunter (Adrian Greensmith), a stereotypically angry young man who despises the popular kids and anything falling under the umbrella of “authority.” But the screenplay, courtesy of Game of Thrones co-creator and showrunner D.B. Weiss, is clever enough to recognize that the musical genre chosen by these young musicians simply reinforces how out of touch they are with their fellow peers, a desperate bid for cool that engenders nothing but derision. That the film is structured to climax with a Battle of the Bands competition only proves its ‘80s-era bona fides, where an original metal track from a band called Skull Fucker is forced to go head-to-head with an Imagine Dragons cover from the aptly named Mollycoddle.
All the usual plot hiccups are also on-hand, with everything from the band’s need of a third member and bassist to the introduction of a female love interest — the passionate and volatile Emily (Isis Hainsworth) — to a third-act fight that threatens to destroy the friendship, but Metal Lords treats most of them as perfunctory, far more interested in attempting to paint empathetic portrayals of its lead characters, for both better and worse. Emily’s mental health issues are explored in ways surprisingly nuanced for a film within this particular genre, while the band’s rivals aren’t simply painted as a group of self-entitled assholes — although there is one of those, too. It’s in the character of Hunter, however, that the script suffers most, casting him as a CliffsNotes version of a troubled kid and piling on such signifiers as bullying and lax parenting, but failing to ever make these identity points coalesce into a three-dimensional character worth caring about. That lack of specificity, undoubtedly meant to make Hunter more relatable, instead renders him a shallow caricature, regardless of the solid and affecting work put in by newcomer Greensmith.
The movie also half-asses its heavy metal elements, which it could be argued is a by-product of the characters’ adoration for its mere surface-level affectations, but still comes across as rather hollow when the music literally takes one of its protagonists to a higher plane at film’s end. That moment of pure wish fulfillment is admittedly far more successful than it has any right to be, though, and is a testament to the goodwill the film manages to inspire regardless of its numerous missteps, including uninspired direction from Peter Sollett, who blundered similar fare with 2008’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. When a movie about music can’t even properly utilize Mickey Mousing during a montage set to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” you know the only driving force is sheer laziness. But despite such various misgivings, Metal Lords is ultimately too successfully heartfelt to completely write off, genuinely moving even as the filmmakers pound you over the head with the irony that their metal film is the least metal thing on the planet… except when they think it is. On the other hand, that lack of focus could be construed as the most metal move the filmmakers could make, thus calling this entire review into question. Either way, the likes of Anthrax and Judas Priest would undoubtedly be proud.