Six months after AMERICAN POP we got another animated-feature-for-adults-with-a-rock-soundtrack. This entry in the ink, paint and rock ‘n roll mini-genre is not directly about the music, but heavily emphasizes its soundtrack, basing sequences around it not quite like FANTASIA, but not completely unlike it. And some of the visual subject matter definitely shares its DNA with the kind of stuff they put on the album covers for this kind of music.
HEAVY METAL was based on the comics anthology magazine Heavy Metal, which is an English translation of the French magazine Métal hurlant. If they had translated the title literally it would’ve been HOWLING METAL, so it would’ve sounded about fifteen to twenty times cooler, but I bet it wouldn’t have been turned into an animated feature with a soundtrack featuring Sammy Hagar, Nazareth and Black Sabbath. And Devo and Blue Öyster Cult and Cheap Trick and Journey and Grand Funk Railroad and Stevie Nicks. And Riggs? Not the same one we’re thinking of, I don’t think. I don’t know who Riggs is. But he has a song on this.
The movie originates from Canada, specifically producer Ivan Reitman, whose directorial work STRIPES came out the same summer. He’d also produced serious genre movies SHIVERS, THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE and RABID, so this movie being much more of a sci-fi/fantasy/horror type deal than a comedy is not completely out of the blue for him. He’d also produced NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE, making him a pioneer of cinematic adaptations of magazine brand names. I wonder if he ever tried to do HIGHLIGHTS’ GOOFUS AND GALLANT? If not they must not have Highlights in Canada, because that’s just a no-brainer.
This strange movement of North American animation aimed at adults was a little bit before my time, and it fascinated me when I was growing up. It might be hard to imagine now, but there weren’t that many animated features back then. You had your Disney movies and your Don Bluth and other people imitating Disney movies. But “adult,” or even “not mainly for young kids” animation was uncommon enough that it had a real aura of mystery around it, to the point that I would try to watch pretty much anything that fit the category at all. We knew about anime (because of Star Blazers) and you could get a limited selection of titles from specialty catalogs. I saw all the Ralph Bakshi movies, which were the most interesting to me. HEAVY METAL was the most legendary one, partly because it was unattainable; just like AMERICAN POP, the music rights kept it off of home video. Eventually super rich Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman bought the magazine and got that all straightened out.
And believe me when I tell you that the movie’s notoriety in pop culture was erased pretty much the day it hit VHS in 1996. We’d been building it up in our mind all these years and then we saw what it actually was. I don’t really hear people discuss it anymore, and if they do it’s definitely not with the reverence that was once standard. So there’s something to be said for the mystery of the unknown. (Also I guess animation with boobs is no longer the precious commodity it was in those days.)
You could say AMERICAN POP was sort of an anthology format with its four generations, but HEAVY METAL is the more traditional version where it’s several unrelated short stories tied together with a wrap-around. Director Gerald Potterton, who had been an animator on YELLOW SUBMARINE, among other things, oversaw an army of segment directors including Jimmy T. Murakami (BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, WHEN THE WIND BLOWS), John Bruno (the FX genius who later directed T2 3-D: BATTLE ACROSS TIME and VIRUS), Harold Whitaker, Jack Stokes (animation director on the live action PRINCE VALIANT), Julian Harris (overseas animation director, Capitol Critters), Paul Sabella (ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN 2), Barrie Nelson (“Ten: The Magic Number” on School House Rock), Pino Van Lamsweerde (CARE BEARS IN THE LAND WITHOUT FEELINGS) and John Halas (ANIMAL FARM).
In the spirit of the comics, the segments use a variety of visual styles, tones and genres. The unifying element is a glowing orb from the story “Grimaldi.” A guy named Grimaldi (Don Francks, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, JOHNNY MNEMONIC, Boba Fett on The Star Wars Holiday Special) comes home after the opening credits sequence “Soft Landing,” (written by Dan RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD O’Bannon!) in which he was an astronaut who descended from the space shuttle to earth in a Corvette. (?) He brings his daughter “girl” (Caroline Semple) the gift of this floating green sphere, which proceeds to melt him and introduce itself as “Loc-Nar” (uncredited Percy Rodrigues, narrator of CAPTAIN EO) and explain how it has spread death to many civilizations and worlds throughout time.
For example, it’s the McMuffin in a sort of tech-noir story called “Harry Canyon.” I can’t help but notice how much this one has in common with THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Alejandro Jodorowsky, who wrote many stories for Metal hurlant, felt THE FIFTH ELEMENT was a ripoff of The Incal, the series he did with Moebius. I’ve read that and I don’t think they’re very similar, but this is based on another story by Moebius (adapted by Daniel Goldberg & Len Blum of MEATBALLS & STRIPES) and it has this guy Harry Canyon (Richard Romanus, MEAN STREETS) who drives a cab (but not a flying one) in a futuristic city, and it’s rigged with various weapons to deal with thieves, and he rescues a young woman (Susan Roman, “Hammerman’s Would-Be Girlfriend,” Hammerman). She falls asleep in his car and the police won’t take her so he takes her to his apartment and they have sex and she’s gone in the morning.
It sticks with the noir vibe more than FIFTH ELEMENT does – a femme fatale, double crosses and light-hearted misogyny, and also the female character is just called “Girl” and seems like a walking sex doll, lacking the soul with which Milla Jovovich imbued Besson’s version of that type of character. But the visual details of the world are really cool – I love all the little dots and line work in the backgrounds, making every surface seem dirty and scummy.
The next one, “Den,” adapts the origin of a character that Bat Out of Hell cover artist Richard Corben created and chronicled from the ’70s through the ‘90s. John Candy (1941) voices a nerdy teenager who finds the Loc-Nar in the form of a meteorite, experiments with it and is transported to a wasteland planet where he grows into a naked bald muscleman called Den. It’s kind of a cool idea because it’s a regular person suddenly finding they are a hero in a barbarian fantasy novel – he sees a naked lady (Jackie Burroughs, THE DEAD ZONE, WILLARD) about to be sacrificed and rescues her. Turns out she’s in a similar situation – she used to be Katherine Wells from Gibraltar. They fly around together on giant bugs (hot) and battle with the Queen (Marilyn Lightstone, IRON EAGLE IV: ON THE ATTACK) and a twerpy immortal named Ard (Martin Lavut) who are trying to get the fucking Loc-Nar just like every other asshole in every story of this movie. Hasn’t anybody figured out that it just melts you? Trust me you don’t want this fucking thing.
The animators of “Den” definitely weren’t up to the task of consistently getting human anatomy right, but it’s still cool to see an attempt at this type of fantasy art in animation. Also it’s kinda funny to see a muscleman with Candy’s voice. But at this point in the movie you really realize that the embarrassing horniness of “Harry Canyon” was no fluke. That’s gonna be this whole movie. And horny is fine, it’s natural, but this is a transparently little-boy version of horny where every woman he meets immediately has sex with him and/or shows off her giant boobs that appear to be drawn by someone who has never seen real ones.
The next story is “Captain Sternn,” created by Bernie Wrightson, the co-creator of Swamp Thing. It’s a wacky comedy thing about a trial on a space station where Captain Lincoln F. Sternn (Eugene Levy, LIKE MIKE) – one of those parody super heroes with a double-sized square jaw – is charged with (and guilty of) “12 counts of murder in the first degree, 14 counts of armed theft of Federation property, 22 counts of piracy in high space, 18 counts of fraud, 37 counts of rape, and one moving violation.” You know, a space scoundrel, exactly like Han Solo, and no different.
Sternn bribed some guy named Hanover Fiste (Rodger Bumpass, Squidward on Spongebob Squarepants) to lie on the stand, but he happened to pick up the Loc-Nar in marble form off the floor and it makes him sell out Sternn and then turn into a Hulk and attack him and start headbutting the space station to death.
“B-17” is another one written by O’Bannon that seems to have about a sentence worth of story: the Loc-Nar turns the dead crew of a bomber into skeleton zombies, and the pilot parachutes out but is attacked by more skeleton zombies. It’s got a cool art style with very detailed bomber animation that they rotoscoped from footage of a 10-foot model plane they made.
“So Beautiful & So Dangerous” (written by Angus McKie from his comic) is about a meeting at the Pentagon interrupted by a UFO. It’s all men in the room except for this ridiculous sexy stenographer character Gloria (Alice Playten, LEGEND) who is wearing the glowing Loc-Nar as a necklace just below her (because this is the movie HEAVY METAL) prominently displayed cleavage…
…and it causes a doctor (Bumpass again) to attempt to rape her on the table but a tube sucks them into the flying saucer and blows her skirt up and the doctor turns out to be a robot and there’s another robot with John Candy’s voice and aliens with Eugene Levy and Harold Ramis (GROUNDHOG DAY)’s voices and the robot fucks the lady (consensually) and the aliens get high and crash the ship. See, “animation for adults” used to mean “animation for kids that they aren’t allowed to watch.”
The last and longest story, “Taarna,” is thankfully the best. Based on another Moebius story and at times closely mimicking his art style, it takes place in a world brought to war by the Loc-Nar hitting a mountain and causing it to erupt green lava. That inspires a cyborg guy to lead an attack on the city, which involves flying in on pterodactyls and just massacring the fuck out of everybody with every level of technology from axes to lasers. The scientists and statesmen and old guys in robes can’t fight back, but they have an ancient pact with a warrior race called Taarak. Con: they’re dead. Pro: maybe possibly according to rumor there is one left named Taarna.
So this robed figure who we gather is Taarna (no voice) is flying around on a bird thing in a really cool FX shot (some kind of rotoscoping) and then lands and steps out of the shadows and (record scratch) it’s a lady! Just kidding, obviously it’s a lady, because it’s HEAVY METAL, and obviously moments after she reveals herself she drops the robe and swims naked across a pool to kneel down in front of giant statue (of herself?) and pull out her costume – a black bikini with thigh-high boots and one red glove and shoulder pad. (Aeon Flux definitely considers her a fashion icon.) So, yes, she’s gonna wear clothes, but of course they’re gonna have her take her sweet time sexily putting each item on, with a sexy dissolve between each shot. The only thing missing is some Shannon-Tweed-movie-style saxophone, a major oversight in the otherwise great adventure score by Elmer fucking Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN). Then Taarna holds up a sword and lightning strikes it and I honestly wonder if this inspired the powering up sequence in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
Whether or not she’s the mother of He-Man, it should be said that she looks cool as fuck, and this segment has outstanding animation that really elevates the simple story.
Taarna does a little detective work first. She goes to a saloon where cyborg Devo are performing a song called “Through Being Cool.”
There’s this bit of song and some Black Sabbath, but “Taarna” puts more emphasis on the Bernstein score than the rock, which I think helps it to feel more cinematic than the others. Interestingly, Blue Öyster Cult were commissioned to make a song for this story, but the filmmakers decided not to use it because the lyrics were too literal about explaining the story. (The song is called “Vengeance (The Pact)” and they put it on their album Fire Of Unknown Origin.)
Anyway, at the bar she decapitates three dudes who hit on her and then gets a lead from the bartender without speaking a weird. Beat that, Obi Wan Kenobi. Later she gets caught in a net, gets strung up and whipped (naked, of course) and thrown in a pit (still naked of course), has a sword vs. sawblade-hand duel (clothed now), and punches the cyborg guy’s skull into green goo in front of like 150 of his guys. Beautiful. She’s gonna sacrifice herself by flying into the green volcano (a Taarnakian’s gotta do what a Taarnakian’s gotta do) and back in the wraparound story the little girl runs in terror as her house explodes (a model shot that they intended to rotoscope but didn’t have time but it’s okay it looks cool anyway) and then she turns into the new Taarna, the end, roll credits, more Devo.
A model named Carole Desbiens was rotoscoped as Taarna, but the drawing is much more stylized than in AMERICAN POP. It looks more like incredibly precise animation than tracing of live action. Taarna and her bird were the subject of the film’s poster, painted by Chris Achilleos, who also worked on the magazine and helped design the character for the movie. He’s connected to music in that he’d designed a controversial cover for Whitesnake’s Lovehunter. It shows a naked woman straddling a giant snake monster, so I think it was required by law that he work on HEAVY METAL a few years later.
I don’t think I can go as far as to say I’m a fan of HEAVY METAL. Like so many anthologies there’s the good one and a couple of okay ones and some kind of nothing ones and it ends up feeling like a clip show or, at best, a mix tape. Even the best one has its “let’s stop for a couple minutes to drool over giant boobs” parts, and the worst ones are full-on misogynistic. The most dimensional female character – well, I guess the most dimensional character – has no dialogue and wears a bikini and just flies around killing people.
I mean, I like that character. But you’d think there’d be more.
But setting that stuff aside, I do like the vibe of this movie – the fantasy worlds, the mix of robots and swords and alien steeds, the varied animation (from slightly home made looking to very slick and impressive), even the dated choices of rock songs to set it all to. And I know the best animation is specifically imitating Moebius, but it’s a rare thrill to see an animated movie drawn in a style unlike any other animated movie you’ve seen. So I appreciate that about it.
According to Wikipedia, HEAVY METAL “was a financial success, grossing over $20 million on a $9 million budget,” and the soundtrack made it to #12 on the Billboard charts, with the single for the theme song “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)” by Don Felder reaching #5 on the “Mainstream Rock” chart. And then the movie had that reign as a legendary cult movie with occasional midnight showings at places that would also play THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW or something.
19 years later Eastman produced HEAVY METAL 2000, which was one story animated in a more normal style, centering on a sexy space warrior voiced by and modeled and named after his wife Julie Strain. I did not rewatch it, but I did review it when it came out (I apologize to anyone who reads that) and was not impressed at the time. Since the world had changed, they paid for the video rights to the soundtrack upfront, and now you can pay three bucks to Amazon at any time and watch it complete with its songs by MDFMK and Insane Clown Posse with Twiztid. Even if you couldn’t, I doubt there’d be any legends about it. In a way that’s progress.