This sometimes distracted Vice documentary traces the odyssey of amateur band Acrassicauda as they attempt to play heavy metal in the apocalyptic hell of post-US invasion Iraq (and later, after their rehearsal room is flattened by a missile, as refugees in neighboring Syria). Musically insignificant, Heavy Metal in Baghdad nonetheless reminds us of art’s cathartic quality and offers shuddering insight into the occupation’s grinding misery.
Though they claim to have played to large audiences since forming in Saddam’s Iraq in 2001, Acrassicauda’s sole Baghdad performance on HMIB is in a faded hotel function room in ’05 before a few dozen rather bemused punters. Even this entailed negotiating US checkpoints, enduring nearby mortar impacts and a mid-set power outage—and being done by sundown. Yet our heroes induce some gleeful head-banging with their sub-Slayer/Sepultura riffery and emerge rightfully triumphant.
When the film crew returns to Baghdad a year later, social order is disintegrating and Acrassicauda (Latin for “black scorpion”) are in limbo. Islamic militants—apparently no fans of metal—have threatened the band and, aside from perennially affable bassist Firas, they’re reluctant to even be seen with Westerners. One lingering image of HMIB is the deterioration of the previously garrulous frontman Faisal into a haunted bag of nerves.
In Syria, though safe, Acrassicauda are paupers. Breaking a documentary-making taboo, Vice influence their subject by helping fund the band’s first demo. Their Syrian stage debut is even more bizarre/depressing than their final Baghdad appearance, yet Acrassicauda vow to continue (they’re now in Turkey). In their seven years of marvelous metal devotion they’ve managed just nine shows—and you thought broken strings were a bummer. (Paul Rogers)
Limited theatrical screenings begin May 23
Available on DVD June 10