A charming animated film about the power of music to help the lost and broken find identity and friendship.
There are various descriptions that you might use to describe films about heavy metal – or, more particularly, heavy metal fans – but ‘sweet’ isn’t usually one of them. But the Spanish – more accurately, Catalan – film Heavies Tendres (Tender Metalheads) is just that – a story of developing adolescent friendship, the discovery of identity and meaning and the transformative power of music for people who are social outsiders. In itself, the media portrayal of metal fans as misfits is not exactly unusual – it’s almost standard procedure for movies and TV shows, you might think. But all too often it is a deliberately negative portrayal – at best, a rather sneering mockery suggesting that these kids are dumbass stoners, at worst maliciously feeding into the very worst stereotypes of Satanic killers and school shooters. Rarely is the love of metal shown to be a positive thing, even though there is now plenty of evidence to suggest that metal fans are often not only the smarter kids in school but also the more socially conscious. There’s good and bad in all groups, but the constant portrayal of metalheads (and goths, punks and any other outsider group) in a negative light seems to me to say a lot about the demand for conformity that dominates the media and a rather clumsy idea that aggression in music leads to aggression in behaviour – the same sort of simple-minded and evidence-free connections that the same people have long made about horror movies.
In a sense, Tender Metalheads still buys into the misfit stereotype. Juanjo is a coddled kid and a socially awkward academic under-achiever who has been held back a year at school and finds himself sitting in class next to Miguel, who comes from a broken family background (the film holds back on the final reveal, but it’s pretty obvious early on that dad is in prison, while mum is a dysfunctional alcoholic with a bad taste in boyfriends). Miguel has inherited a large record collection from his father, but it is a distinctly unimpressive one – he loans Juanjo a Phil Collins album in exchange for Iron Maiden‘s The Number of the Beast. Both exchanges prove revelatory, but only one in a positive manner. Miguel – a stuttering kid with a bad temper and an understandable chip on his shoulder – becomes a metal obsessive, finding the identity that he had long been looking for, and while his friendship with Juanjo is initially a parasitical one (he effectively steals his records as he delves deep into the metal world) the two eventually form a close relationship, them against the world. As the story develops, things ebb and flow – Miguel is the more musically obsessive and born-again purist, wanting to form a band and having no time for anything outside his narrow view of what metal is, while Juanjo develops a helpless crush on a girl who is into bands like The Pixies (the film is set in 1991) and wants help to put her fanzine together. The two friends eventually find that each has an appreciation of heavy metal and a direction in life that is very different from the other’s – but that in the end, their friendship – and the love of music that connects it – is more important than their differences.
Did I mention that Tender Metalheads is animated? Well, it is – and in a minimalist style that often has little or no background imagery or even facial features beyond a mouth (though these stylistic ‘rules’ are broken as and when the film needs them to be). In a world of hyper-detailed CGI, the film feels very visually unique and at times rather challenging, but it is to the credit of directors Joan Tomàs, Carlos Pérez-Reche and Juanjo Sáez that the film allows these blank-faced characters to be so expressive and realistic as people. There is a sense of authenticity to the story and the characters – not just the two leads but all those around them with the exception of a corrupt and monstrous head teacher – feel completely real, even if the film indulges in classic cartoon slapstick and humour from time to time, a nice contrast to the moments of bleakness that are also scattered throughout. More importantly, the film allows the friendship to develop in a way that we can all recognise – who hasn’t bonded with a school friend over music or movies or something else that it seems no one else understands? The way that this film captures how exciting it can be to discover the music that speaks to you as a teenager, how it completely overwhelms your identity and your sense of self-worth, is absolutely authentic. If you don’t get that, I can only assume that you are one of the kids who just went with the flow, only listening to the popular groups and watching the popular films. In which case, good for you – but I’m not sure how you have stumbled upon this website to begin with.
Heavy metal is not the only music that a story like this could explore, but it feels like the most obvious choice – a genre that the radio has always ignored, the media has always ridiculed and which has rarely been subject to the whims of passing fashion. The filmmakers clearly know their stuff – references to the right bands and the idea of Metallica selling out with the Black Album, the shifting tides of what ‘heavy’ music might be in the grunge era and the purist self-styled elitism that still clogs up much of the metal scene today. It’s interesting that the film takes place in 1991 rather than the peak-metal days of the 1980s – a bit of filmmaker autobiography at work, perhaps?
What a pity that the budget did not stretch to including the actual music that the two teenagers are listening to. We are instead treated to vague soundalike versions of Iron Maiden, Sepultura, Metallica and others – weirdly recognisable sounds that are almost, but not quite cover versions of familiar songs, distant enough to avoid copyright claims or music royalties. Like the cartoon versions of familiar album covers that litter the movie, the music is a strange parallel universe reconstruction of the familiar. Perhaps that is only fitting in a film that itself does not attempt to resemble visual reality and instead feels like a vague dream version of the world.
There is a real charm to this tale of broken individuals who find truth, meaning and release in music – a sense that heavy metal, almost uniquely, can speak to and for those who feel lost and powerless and that its appeal to the outsider and the alienated should be seen as a positive, rather than the negative that has often been portrayed. As the film shows, music can change the lives of those who find life overwhelming for the better and give them purpose and connection. Maybe we should be encouraging that rather than mocking it.
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