How many of you have been to a GWAR show? If you haven’t, I bet you know someone who has and I can guarantee you that person has some stories they would love to tell you about. Even if you don’t listen to heavy metal, or rock and roll, you’ve probably even heard of GWAR because throughout the 90s GWAR was ubiquitous, but they hadn’t always been that way. Starting out as a rebellious art project in Richmond, Virginia, Dave Brockie and Hunter Jackson created a spectacle that would not only grow to be one of the craziest live performances you could ever see, it became a haven for art school rejects that needed a place to put their creativity. This is GWAR is documentarian Scott Barber’s effort to tell the story of one of the wildest musical art projects to have ever existed.
When I think of great heavy metal acts, I don’t particularly think of Richmond, Virginia as a birthplace, but thanks to the art program of Virginia Commonwealth University two kids who were fed up with modern art joined forces to create something that would become larger than life. Dave Brockie, a punk musician, was always looking to find new ways to express himself onstage, and there was nothing that was off-limits to him. At the same time a local artist, Hunter Jackson was building crazy props and costumes for a film idea called Scumdogs of the Universe about a bunch of crazy space barbarians who come to earth seeking conquest. Through what some might call fate, Brockie and Jackson were introduced and the two began to incorporate Jackson’s props into Brockie’s punk shows. It all started as simple artistic expression, a rebellious “f*** you” to the high art community of VCU, but as their popularity grew it became a full-fledged production complete with spraying blood cannons and a very phallic “cuttlefish” that sprayed a “mysterious fluid” on the audience.
Barber’s cast of talking heads is pretty slim, as he mostly just interviews members of the band both past and present, and a few random celebrities all of them having some connection to the band’s career. A small cast is fine with me though because some documentaries have so many interviews that I often get lost in a sea of names. But let’s face it, the main thing that viewers look for in an in-depth documentary is archive footage. People want to see behind-the-scenes videos and images that they’ve never seen before. It is here where This is GWAR really pays off as every segment has ample footage from GWAR’s early shows and exploits. There are also tons of stories from band members about their antics on tour that will make you rethink some life choices about ever wanting to be in a band. Even if you are the biggest GWAR fan on the planet (or outer space), I’m sure there will be things here that you have never seen before.
It would be nearly impossible for a band that has been playing and touring together for thirty years to not have some sort of drama and GWAR has plenty. I was really worried about how the documentary was going to portray that drama because the last thing I really wanted to see was past and present members just talking trash about each other. Thankfully this wasn’t the case at all. Whether this is by excellent direction from Barber or that the people behind the documentary are champions of the band, I don’t know, but the film does a wonderful job of not pitting people against each other just for the sake of drama and ticket sales. Sure, people see events in different ways and they express their views about them in film, but ultimately there doesn’t appear to be a lot of bad blood. For a band that has appeared multiple times on Jerry Springer that is an impressive feat.
I really hate to admit this publicly to the world, but I have never actually seen a GWAR show. I’ve seen hundreds of live shows, but every time GWAR came to town something always got in the way. Even with me being a GWAR virgin, I still remember the day that I read in the news about Dave Brockie’s death and I knew that this wasn’t just another old heavy metal guy that passed. GWAR had become such a legendary stage act that I knew the world had lost something special. How was GWAR going to continue? This is GWAR really handled this topic beautifully as Scott Barber gave the band members the space they needed in the interviews about Brockie’s death to really convey how they felt. It is really sad to watch because it pulls back the curtain on the theatrics of the band to let you see this intimate friendship that they all had and I think that is what makes this documentary special. It would be really easy to look at the vulgar audacity of GWAR and assume that it is masterminded by some really sick people, but the documentary wants to show you the human element to this circus. Barber succeeded in doing so.
This is GWAR is obviously a no-brainer watch if you are a fan of heavy metal or horror because the band has permeated so many areas within those genres that many will have at least a casual interest in their story, but I really think this film could appeal to an even wider audience. GWAR is performance art at its core and it is very rebellious art at that. Whether you like their music or their antics, or whether you think they are completely disgusting, This is GWAR is a really great story of how passion can drive you to success as long as you never take yourself too seriously.
This is GWAR was screened as part of the 2021 Fantastic Fest.