This Is GWAR

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

This Is GWAR
"It’s a film of tremendous scope."

Why do people go to see live bands? These days, the music often sounds better on recordings listened to at home. At certain types of gig, it’s far too loud to socialise. What really matters, then is the show – and nobody puts on a show like GWAR.

Formed in 1984, originally as an art project, the heavy metal phenomenon also understood as a collection of interstellar warriors and described here as ‘the best band that has ever existed and ever will exist. This includes the entire universe, and multiverse,’ is once seen, never forgotten. It may not, in its current incarnation, have any of its original members, and a conversation about the number of people who have been in the band over the years echoes the one in This Is Spinal Tap, but the personalities which drive it have never depended wholly on their human assistants. Scott Barber’s documentary pays tribute to the characters and those who have sustained their existence alike.

It’s a film of tremendous scope. There’s interview footage with most of the core band members, including those who have now passed, mostly out of character but sometimes in. Friendships and feuds are tracked across years, with additional footage from chat shows and performances. There’s a look at how each of the main characters developed, and a chance to see how costumes are built and maintained and even how the alien bodily fluids with which fans are used to being splattered at shows are produced. We follow character evolution over time and see its interrelation with the statements which various band members wanted to make.

It’s the story which matters here, more than the music, but some songs important to the band’s development get particular attention, as does the way that their musical style changed over time. Due credit is paid to the quality of some of the songwriting and to the musicianship involved both in recordings and on stage, where costume, heat and theatrical antics make it even harder to play. There is also a look at the contributions of those in the band’s famous slave pit, the hard work which eventually enabled one slave to become a member of the band proper, and the exploitation of slaves which appears to have happened almost by accident as stage roles bled over into real life, with some of the musicians so busy with their own dramas that they lost track of how they were treating others.

Through all this, Barber tracks the ups and downs of the band’s fortunes – the record deals, the falling out over attempts at censorship, the relationship with fans, the romances, the car chases, the tragedies and the reconciliations. He addresses the intersections of art and obscenity, principles and playground humour, getting to the heart of why GWAR matters – why it’s more than just a sideshow, and hence how it has managed to endure for all these years.

Why do people watch music documentaries? Usually because they already like the music. This film, however, is so tightly packed with fascinating material that even if you know nothing of GWAR at the outset, you will find it entertaining – assuming you don’t turn it off in disgust about ten minutes in. It may seem scattershot at first – it’s a meandering tale with lots of disparate elements – but Barber shows real skill in drawing it together, creating a film which is well paced and continually interesting. Few GWAR fans will be familiar with everything included here, and there are quite a few surprises, especially towards the end. This is a fine tribute to a band like no other.

Reviewed on: 21 Jul 2022
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The powerful story of the most iconic heavy metal/art collective/monster band in the universe, as told by the humans who have fought to keep it alive for over thirty years.

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