CUFF.Docs Review: 'This Is GWAR' Takes the Metal Band Seriously — Finally Directed by Scott Barber
Published Nov 23, 2021"Maybe it is a joke in the packaging, but the musicianship is very sincere. So, the ultimate joke of GWAR … is that they are good."
This statement, spoken by comedian Thomas Lennon, is the foundational sentiment underpinning the appeal of theatrical shock rock collective GWAR, the "Scumdogs of the Universe." Their grotesque body suits, silly satirical comedy metal, and splatter-filled stage shows — where audience members are more likely to get viscera stuck in their hair than a tune stuck in their head — belie a long-storied history of a commune of Virginia based outsider artists and musicians who have worked decades to perfect their craft.
As Scott Barber's documentary This Is GWAR aims to show, the titular band is fundamentally a joke taken seriously only by two types of people: the detractors and critics who take their Grand Guignol performances at face-level, and the band members themselves who work tirelessly to hone the details of their mythos and bring the larger-than-life concept into reality with shredding guitars and latex, polystyrene, and generous buckets of fake blood.
Barber's film charts the history of the band chronologically from their humble beginnings in Richmond, VA, in the early 1980s when local punk musician Dave Brockie (Oderus Urungus) and comic artist/filmmaker Hunter Jackson (Techno Destructo) formed a collective of artists known as the Slave Pit. Bolstered by generous amounts of never-before-released archival footage shot by the band from these auspicious pre-fame days and in-depth interviews with the surviving members and fans alike, This Is GWAR shows how the DIY days of the Slave Pit snowballed into the larger than life self-parody of today, as the members constantly evolve their aesthetic and their personas with each decade. The intent is to portray GWAR as something larger than their grotesque reputation would have you believe. And in this objective, Barber's film largely succeeds in inspiring a newfound respect for the band's commitment to the bit and their unwavering conviction as practicing musical absurdists.
While as band-centric documentaries go the film itself is conventionally presented (archival footage mixed with "talking head"-style interviews and concert footage), the subject being as outrageous as GWAR does a lot to spice up the predictable formula. The film does an excellent job in presenting their story in a way that truncates 30+ years of rotating band members, 14 studio albums, and several multimedia projects and tragedies into a concise timeline. The tone of the interviews enjoyably plays like a constant stream of disbelief from band member and commenter alike that a film about their history is even being made at all; that anybody would put GWAR on a pedestal feels like the final and inevitable punchline to the cosmic joke that is GWAR, who have spent decades defiling all things sacred and in good taste. The film tasks you with taking a band who cite a shoutout on Beavis and Butthead as instrumental in their rise to stardom seriously, and that you walk away from This Is GWAR doing so is an impressive feat to say the least.
Like with any effort to be the "definitive history" of anything, certain details are either skirted around or only touched upon when greater detail could've been an asset. For all the time the film spends on the effort that goes into the aesthetics of the band, the few details provided about their sonic evolution feels like an oversight. As we get deeper into their history, you wind up picking up an abundance of information about how GWAR constructed their image while some scant details on how they developed their sound are mixed in for posterity's sake. While undoubtedly the film chose the more interesting entry point into understanding the band (and the fact that the mastermind behind the band's sound, Dave Brockie, passed away in 2014), some additional information into GWAR's music would have been appreciated, despite this being a band dominated predominately by outrageous visuals.
But such quibbles do little in disqualifying This Is GWAR from being the exhaustive document of the band that it is. For the diehard fan, Barber's film is the celebratory tribute to the ingenuity of the people behind the grotesque theatrics, which provides the production material and thought processes behind the outlandish lore they sell on their albums. And for the morbidly curious who have heard of GWAR beforehand and promptly written them off as a disgusting joke, this film can help you get in on that disgusting joke and maybe even become a "Bohab" (a GWAR fan in their extensive mythology) yourself.
CUFF.Docs runs from November 24 to 28, 2021. Get more information at the festival's website.