This is GWAR is a straightforward rock doc. After an introductory section detailing the genesis of the titular art collective cum metal band, the filmmakers take us through a chronological survey of the group’s history. We meet the musicians and prop makers who keep the show rolling, as well as a few of their famous fans. Weird Al, Thomas Lennon, and Randy Blythe all briefly turn up to sing the band’s praises, though the long periods during which nobody but GWAR speaks become apparent. What holds the film back is this lack of outside perspective. What unfolds is something like a collective show and tell. GWAR presents their story with almost no space allowed for anything beyond that orbit.
The main creative spark behind GWAR was ignited by Hunter Jackson and Dave Brockie. Jackson studied commercial art in archly conservative Richmond, Virginia, but was more interested in comic books and animation. This point is highlighted by a cutaway to Heavy Metal, efficiently suggesting the headspace GWAR commands. He began crafting props for a film he wanted to make called Scumdogs of the Universe. Brockie, better known as Oderus Urungus fronted a hardcore punk band called Death Piggy. On seeing Jackson’s props, he hit on the idea of opening for his own band in barbarian garb. That opening act was christened with a guttural sound roughly transliterated as GWAR. The band gradually picked up steam, leaving Jackson’s proposed film project unrealised. A split ensued, with Jackson later returning for a brief stint as Techno Destructo, a character hellbent on destroying GWAR.
That type of internal turmoil is to be expected (there are no music documentaries, otherwise), but the film largely ticks over without incident. It is, in a sense, predicable. There are tragedies, yes, but nothing that screams for feature length treatment. Moreover, it so rigidly organised within its chronological structure as to preclude any imaginative or critical leaps. Of prominent interest throughout is footage of the band performing. In keeping with their origin, GWAR became the Scumdogs of the Universe. They are aliens who set off to find the shittiest planet imaginable. They found Earth. What the film succeeds in doing is showing the DIY passion that makes their show possible. The band play in foam rubber costumes transforming members into grotesque monsters. Their live shows are famous for the gallons of fake blood (and other bodily fluids) sprayed into the audience, alongside the customary decapitation of celebrities. It would have been welcome to see more of this, as well as actually hearing some of the music.
I knew very little about the band going into This is GWAR. Coming out, I can’t say I know anything about what GWAR plays. The band is, ultimately, a shock rock act. Imagine a Warhammer module written by Robert E. Howard and illustrated by Frank Frazetta and you’ll get exactly what they’re all about. It’s grotesque, but in a way that could only possibly offend Tipper Gore. The film ably introduces the audience to the artists who make the show happen. Just don’t go into it expecting more than that. Another perspective would have greatly improved the experience. As it stands, This is GWAR is one for those already in the know.
This is GWAR is streaming on Shudder from the 21st of July.