Disguised as a slovenly-attired Hollywood Map to the Stars Tour Guide, Mr. Capricorn greets Hollywood’s two newest and soon-to-be rotted, Eve-bitten rock ‘n’ roll apples with a quote from the Holy Bible’s book of John 7:24: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”
Mr. Capricorn’s lesson on the ignorance of relying more on your perceptions than your feelings falls upon the narcissistic heart and deaf ears of the religious-hating Johnny Faust. . . .
I am a rock ‘n’ roll film addict.
And when that rock-flick injects a hot-shot of Malcolm McDowell (rocker Reggie Wanker in Get Crazy; more contemporary: Halloween 2007 and Mozart in the Jungle) as the Prince of Darkness and a snort of Bill Duke (Predator; TV’s Black Lightning) as God’s right-hand angel: I do a “Johnny Squares” in a trailer behind the slaughterhouse where they shot Peter Swan’s Hotel Satan.
Someone tell the A.D to call Slash and Guns N’ Roses to the set for my funeral. I danced my last with Mr. Brownstone thanks to the McDowell and the Duke.
I’m no longer hurtin’ for a Drake Bell (Nickelodeon’s Drake and Josh) kidnap-and-van-torch of his dickhead-character Damien Collins, the leader of Damien’s Inferno, who promotes a bogus-impromptu Metallica club date to fuck over the new band of Lilly, his bisexual, ex-bass player girlfriend that he raped (off camera). I’m no longer jonesing for a “Hard-R” lesbian motel-soirée of underage sex, nor do I have the shakes for a scene of naked, coke-fueled brothel-sex. No lesbian giving a racist-sexist redneck a well-deserved garnished-boot groin puncture is required. For I got my McDowell-Duke fix and it’s a very mellow vibe.
Now hold on there, Ragman. Stop back-spinning the Sammy Curr albums and stow the pocket-rocket. You’ll get a zipper injury.
While American Satan coke-dishes some horror elements, it’s not a horror flick. So don’t come-a-rockin’ because the Queen of the Damned and The Crow ain’t knockin’. Imagine Rockstar as a horror flick that’s heavier on the sex, features an extended Jennifer Aniston nipple shot, and goes light on the gore. There are no obligatory demon possessions or cliché demon transformations; there’s no backmask-conjurings; forget about the non-linear Heather Langencamp-cum-Jennifer Rubin dream-within-dream warriors questioning their sanity in this higher road morality tale. Malcolm McDowell’s smarmy-philosophizing Devil doesn’t go “Freddy Krueger” on any wee-rocker’s ass, either.
There’ s no Sal Viviano belting King Kobra and Lizzy Borden tunes as Black Roses crisscrosses the ‘80s countryside in the name of Satan. There’s no Jon Mikl Thor in a Spinal Tap-meets-Ed Wood Rock ‘N Roll Nightmare. Terry Chandler—in his requisite Killer Dwarf-patched denim vest—isn’t showing up with his copy of Sacrifyx’s The Dark Book to stop the demon-spew from The Gate (but he’d certainly vest-fly the Pentagram-red-and-black bars of The Relentless’ American Satan-logo).
“Schwing!” thrusts Garth Algar’s hips. “Denise Richards (as Ms. Faust) from my VHS tapes of Wild Things and Starship Troopers starring as a smokin’ hot rocker mom (who has her breast cancer “cured” by the Devil to “finalize his contract” with her rocker son) makes me feel like I watched a female-Bugs Bunny cartoon and climbed the rope in gym class.”
Oh, yeah, baby. This daddy’s rock-drug supplier of the week is Comcast, courtesy of a non-subscription promotional week of Showtime, which gave me my much-needed American Satan fix—and the faux-rock of the Relentless is a major score. Most faux-rocker actor-musician amalgamates—such as Tony Fields lip-synching to Fastway’s Dave King for Sammy Curr in Trick or Treat and Tracey Sebastian channeling Mott’s Nigel Benjamin as Billy “Eye” Harper in Rocktober Blood—dance a Mr. Brownstone along my veins.
While many musicians, such as David Bowie, transitioned successfully from microphone to camera in non-musician-character dramatic pieces, there are those cases of musicians acting as “musicians” where the results muster critical yawns—with Neil Diamond’s turn in The Jazz Singer (a film better than the critical bashes claim) as the worst-case example. Then there’s the Jim Carrey-Axl Rose Frankenstein that is Johnny Squares, leaving us wanting more Brownstone and less “make my day” and “do you feel lucky, punk” edicts. Then Johnny Squares O.D’d and the dirty spoon passed to Tom Cruise—in the ultimate faux-rock transformation—belting his own versions of Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard tunes, leaving us salivating for an alt-reality Stacy Jaxx-Arsenal world tour.
Another one of my cinematic fascination-addictions is applauding the offspring of the writer-directors behind the celluloid milestones of my duplex-theatre youth who keep the shingle swinging over the front door of the family business.
Panos, the son of George G. Cosmatos (Cobra and Rambo: First Blood II), blew me away with his Nicolas Cage rock ‘n’ roll fever dream, Mandy (2018)—with the Cage laying waste to sinners with a Celtic Frost logo-inspired broadsword. Now Ash, the son of John G. Avildsen (Rocky and The Karate Kid), who incorporated his own film and music production company, Sumerian (Ash? Sumerian? Get me Bruce Campbell!), brings his label’s roster of progressive metal, metalcore, and deathcore to the fore with his rock ‘n’ roll letter: American Satan. (Ash also tosses in a score by Korn’s Jonathan Davis and places the Relentless in context with Deftones, the Pretty Reckless, Slaughter, and Skid Row on the soundtrack; Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, who can act (Gilmore Girls; my ex-forced me to watch it, ugh) and would be welcomed on-screen—is not in the movie, despite what the IMDB tells you.)
In Todd Farmer’s action-packed morality tale, Drive Angry (2011), John Milton’s epic, philosophical poem, “Paradise Lost,” which pondered man’s use of free will and his place in heaven and hell—and, to a lesser extent, Stephen’s Benét’s moral-fable short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster”—fueled his screenwriting vision. Taking Farmer’s literary cues, Ash Avildsen constructed his screenplay on the foundations of German literature’s finest moment: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic poem, Faust. And just as Goethe had his “proclivities,” so do his modern-day, cinematic namesakes.
On screen—holding his own against the McDowell and the Duke in his leading man debut—is Andy Beirsack (of the bands Black Veil Brides and Andy Black) as the aspiring rocker, Johnny Faust. A freshly-minted high-school diploma (contract) in hand, he leaves his Ohio-girlfriend, Gretchen (a Goethe-Faust character) for Los Angeles with fellow school-guitarist, Vic Lakota (Booboo Stewart from Twilight; he shines with his meandering, philosophical acid-tripping edict during a live TV interview), to hook up with drummer Dylan James (Sebastian Gregory of Australian TV’s longest-running daytime drama, Neighbours), and Leo Donovan (Benjamin Paul Bruce of metalcore stars Asking Alexandria), a U.K guitarist who they’ve written songs with through online networking.
Taking a similar approach to the rock comedy Airheads, where the New York alt-metal band D-Generation served as the “sound” of the faux-Lone Rangers, Sumerians Records’ Palaye Royal—a Toronto trio with the Modern Rock hits “Get Higher” and “You’ll Be Fine,” featuring the vocals of Remington Leith—provide the “sound” of the Relentless.
Providing a dose of Jack Blackesque comic relief is Leo Donovan’s “manager,” the portly Ricky Rollins (John “Sam” Bradley from Game of Thrones). We’ve seen rock-flick managers like this before (and in real life) . . . and I always want to bean them with a Gibson SG and give them some backside drum stick action: a live-vicariously dork devoid of any music or business acumen, “in the biz” with the hopes—and a rat’s chance in hell—of getting any sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll sloppy seconds . . . or fourths.
When the singular-monikered “Hawk” (professional wrestler Bill Goldberg of Santa’s Slay) appears to Sam’s chagrin as the “new” tour manager and tells him, “You’re the band manager. I’m the road manager. You belong behind the desk,” then explains the services that portly Ricky can’t provide: “When the shit hits the fan, I’m the fan,” you kind of wish Goldberg would just get rid of Sam via a suplex pink slip and be done. Wait . . . What? What the hell? Sam is having a coke-binged, Fifty Shades of Grey ménage in a lesbian brothel’s Eyes Wide Shut-inspired V.I.P room? Cue Eddie Wilson; the rats are having a Rimbaud season in hell with the Cruisers.
Along the way, the Relentless fill out their roster with Lilly Mayflower (Jesse Sullivan; killing it in her feature film debut), a red herring L.A. lesbian-bassist who may or not be in league with the Devil. In a refreshing twist: Lilly—and not the ubiquitous male band member—is the one who creates career-controversy—and endures the hot-mom wrath of Lt. Tasha Yar from Star Trek:TNG (Denise Crosby)—for having underage sex with her teen daughter in a Topeka, Kansas motel room. (Am I spider-sensing The Wizard of Oz with Dorothy and her “band” following the Yellow Brick Road?)
. . . And down at the Daniel Johnson crossroads of Vineland Avenue and Burbank Boulevard, delineated by North Hollywood’s famous 32-foot neon clown at Clown Liquors, the burgeoning clown-rock god meets Mr. Capricorn, aka The Devil (McDowell), and the apple-bearing Gabriel, the Arc Angel (Duke), who both appear as an eclectic variety of “disguised,” philosophical-quoting characters during the band’s Homer-Iliad quest through the underbelly of Los Angeles. And in the land of Hollyweird, the world famous Rainbow Room Bar and Grill on the Sunset Strip serves as Mr. Capricorn’s Faustian Auerbachs Keller. (Now I’m spider-sensing a way-less-psychologically twisty Under the Silver Lake (2018).)
References to The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri are also morally-afoot as the band’s “Virgil” appears in the form of Akkadian Records’ (cue the Sumarian-Akkadian Empire hero-journey text, the “Epic of Gilgamesh”) owner Elias Collins (the awesome Mark Boone Junior from Sons of Anarchy and Batman Begins), a rock ‘n’ roll philosophizing, not-so-wise man that may not be who he seems to be. . . .
Being a rock star is the intersection of who you are and who you want to be. So, do you want to be a rock star?
- How far will you go for that fame and fortune?
- Will you surrender your free will and indulge in narcissism—even murder—to achieve it?
- Are you ready for the consequences of the resulting fame and fortune?
- Religion separates humanity. Music brings them together. Are you ready to join those masses—while tearing them away them from the rest of the world?
- Are we real? Are you and I symbolic figments of our inner self?
Produced in part by Hit Parader magazine, the film features plot-appropriate title cards of musician published-insights regarding the “crossroads” of music and religion and the “influences” over their creativity—courtesy of Ozzy Osbourne, David Bowie, and Neil Young, Judas Priest’s Glenn Tipton, AC/DC’s Angus Young, Jimmy Page, and Carlos Santana.
A repetitive consumer-criticism of the film: the music . . . and not with Ash Avildsen’s intelligent scripting or the film’s crisp color palate (the V.I.P brothel scene and concert sequences are exquisite) by cinematographer Andrew Strahorn (of TV’s Lethal Weapon). And that critique isn’t a quality issue: it’s one’s personal taste issue.
Today’s alt-leaning metalcore practiced by the Black Veil Brides, Andy Black, the Crosses, and Palaye Royal (there are Deftones deriders out there as well) isn’t forever one—especially if raised on the sounds of Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow (Rainbow Rising appears on the Rainbow Bar’s wall) or the name-checked Led Zeppelin’s amplified-blues rock (. . . and Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil,” Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast,” the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, along with the music of the Gene Simmons-christened new “heavy-metal stars” in the form of rappers Jay-Z and Kayne West).
Comparing the Relentless (soundtrack; You Tube) to the output of the cool-to-hate grunge-metal hybrids Nickelback and Chevelle or that the film needs less “Marilyn Manson” and more “Metallica,” is harsh. I love pre-Cold Lake Celtic Frost (and pre-CF Hellhammer) and Morbid Angel just as much as the next “Ragman”—and nothing beats the sounds of my beloved ‘80s VHS-era heavy metal horror films—but those über-awesome bands are no longer contemporaneous in today’s youthful, analog-scoffing and digital-drunk epoch. Ash Avildsen didn’t make a retro-metal flick; he’s in the business of making films that make money. The digital celluloid has to rock with the times and not the yesterdays of the aged-out, demographically unwanted rocker.
Another critical misstep—result of the film’s unappreciated and misunderstood framework of Goethe’s Faust—is to rationalize the film as a steamier-version of a Lifetime cable flick crossed with a church-commissioned Alex Kendrick movie (writer-director of the actually commendable Flywheel and Facing the Giants) to “scare straight” Christian kids on the dangers of sex and drugs and that Satan and music go hand-in-hand. . . .
“Perception is not reality. It’s what you feel, not what you see,” says Gabriel, the Arc Angel, disguised as the homeless Reverend Jasper Williams. He tosses Johnny Faust an apple. . . .
Like Reverend Duke said: It’s all about perception.
Author’s Note: This review was previously posted on July 2, 2019, and was reposted for January 2020’s “Satan Week.”