Sam Dunn looks at heavy metal through an anthropological lens.
SAM DUNN MAKES A LIVING BANGING HIS HEAD. And it’s exactly what he wants to be doing. Because not only is he immersed in the heavy metal music he loves, he’s taking his background in anthropology and using it to question why he—and countless others across the world—have such a love for this often-maligned aural assault.
The 32-year-old Dunn and his partner in filmmaking, Scot McFadyen were behind 2006’s breakthrough documentary, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. In an ambitious look at the history of heavy metal, and a study of its social and anthropological aspects, the duo filmed in locales world-wide, interviewing many of metal’s biggest names.
“We wanted to make a film that would bring in both the metal fan and the curious outsider, that person who had a friend growing up who liked metal but they couldn’t understand why the hell they loved this music,” Dunn, BA ’98, explains over the din of a wildly loud coffee shop. “If you grew up in the ’80s, you had one of those friends. And, of course, we made the film for the curious, or furious, mothers out there who want to understand why their little Johnny listens to Slayer 24/7 in their bedroom.”
After it opened in 2005 at the Toronto International Film Festival, the good reviews started rolling in from metal fans (a notoriously tough crowd when it comes to people documenting their culture) and mainstream media outlets alike. The DVD has sold roughly 35,000 copies in Canada alone.
Combining what Dunn learned about anthropology at UVic and his passion for the music, the film guides viewers through the huge Wacken metal festival in Germany, explores the dark side of Norwegian metal, and features interviews with most of the metal’s key figures, including Alice Cooper and Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson. Dunn and McFadyen explore the metal community’s unique sense of style, its language, and the fans who are attracted by a sense of rebellious unity.
Martin Popoff, BA ’84, a noted hard rock and heavy metal journalist and author, says Dunn’s movie “got an astonishing amount of mainstream press. It made metalheads proud on a number of levels, because, even if it likely didn’t convince tens of thousands of outsiders to take up the cause, it possibly intensified or reinforced the beliefs of those already on the inside.”
And why should the non-metal fan care about Dunn’s work?
“I think people should care about music, period,” says Dunn. “Music is a hugely influential part of everyone’s life. I think music is not just music; it’s a very powerful medium for shaping who we are as people, for giving us certain emotions or feelings we can’t get through any other experiences. It can be a very transcendental experience. Especially metal.”
The movie was such a success that Dunn now finds himself in the role of a full-time filmmaker. He and McFadyen are working on a follow-up, Global Metal, which they hope to release this fall. So far they’ve taken their camera to Japan, Indonesia, China, and Poland and they hope to get to India, Iran, and Brazil. They’re looking at the common bonds shared by metal fans around the world and what it is they experience differently because of economic, social and political conditions, or religious upbringing.
It should come as no surprise that Dunn, the narrator and public face of the first movie, has become a spokesman for the metal scene. He appreciates that, but the fame has taken him a bit by surprise and it’s something he’s not always comfortable with. “I don’t mind, but getting asked for autographs is a very bizarre experience. I have trouble dealing with it sometimes.
“It certainly wasn’t a goal of mine to become a figurehead. But if getting noticed on the street means people are seeing the film and enjoying it, that’s great and I’m really pleased.”