Director Peter Sollett (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and writer D.B. Weiss (co-creator of Game of Thrones) team up to tell an unlikely (yet oh-so-relatable) tale of teenage rebellion in Netflix’s Metal Lords. Centering around a high school trio who don’t fit in for their own personal reasons—whether it be due to scrawny stature, niche cultural interests or fluctuating mental health issues—and, as a result, form a pretty kick-ass heavy metal band. The stakes are raised when the school announces a battle of the bands, accelerating their motivation to ditch their repertoire of Black Sabbath covers in favor of original songs. Before they can seriously improve, though, the pressure of constant practice and young romance drives a wedge between the friends, threatening to break up the band all together. Though much of the film feels like a heavy metal rip-off of School of Rock, Metal Lords reveals a deep-seated sincerity. Sure, the motivations of these characters are totally inane, and the narrative may appear desperately contrived. But the film’s lightheartedness and palpable high school schadenfreude keep Metal Lords from tipping over into uninspired pastiche.
Although most of his musical talent lies in playing the snare drum in marching band, Kevin (Jaeden Martell) is recruited by his best friend Hunter (Adrian Greensmith) to man the drum kit in his heavy metal band, edgily dubbed Skullfucker. While Kevin might not necessarily possess the chops to play “polyrhythms,” Hunter knows enough about the genre and its broader subculture to give his friend a general crash course. At a cinematically stereotypical high school rager, Hunter becomes enraged by Mollycoddle, a band-for-hire that sloppily plays Ed Sheeran covers. He truly believes Skullfucker to be totally superior, despite the band not even having a bass player yet. After an altercation between proto-jocks draws attention to the boys, Hunter hastily proclaims his self-assured opinion. Amused by his cockiness, the members of Mollycoddle insist on facing off properly at the school’s forthcoming battle of the bands—a challenge Hunter readily accepts. With only a few weeks to fine-tune their skills and find a bassist, Will hauls his massive drum kit to the high school’s music room to practice without disturbing his family’s neighbors. Coincidentally, a young British co-ed named Emily (Isis Hainsworth) happens to be playing the cello at the same time, leading Will to believe Skullfucker may just have found their bass player. Yet, Hunter quickly dismisses her, citing Emily’s girlish ringlets and sensible sweater collection as the antithesis to what constitutes heavy metal.
While the film’s premise is appealing enough in its coming-of-age charm, the central characters themselves are intensely grating. The audience should ostensibly relate to the experience of being a teenage outcast, but instead we are given a litany of reasons to root against them. Hunter is a self-obsessed, sniveling asshole whose obsession with heavy metal borders on lunacy. Emily is totally two-dimensional, save for her random trait of sporadically going off of her mood stabilizers, making her prone to expletive-riddled outbursts over minor inconveniences. Kevin, who serves as narrator and the film’s central protagonist, is so spineless that it’s perplexing why we’re following his interiority in the first place. However, their unlikability also transmits the noxious narcissism of being a young person, their every waking moment hyper-fixating on their respective cultural niches and the elusive prospect of getting laid. It’s hard to say if any of these characters truly “develop,” though—an odd stagnation for an age rife with personal experimentation and evaluation. There are tepid reconciliations, inner monologues and dramatic outfit changes—but that’s about as far as growth goes here.
There also exist glaring similarities between Metal Lords and its 2003 spiritual predecessor School of Rock, often feeling more like a pale imitation than a friendly tribute. In one scene, Hunter assigns Kevin “homework,” writing down a list of essential heavy metal tracks for him to study, recalling Jack Black’s CD-issued classic rock assignment. During the film’s third act, a quasi-jail break occurs in order for the band to get their founding member to the all-important gig, again mimicking the daring ploy School of Rock’s young students execute to get their teacher to the battle of the bands. The film’s heavy metal angle is somewhat novel—but it certainly owes a lot to Wayne’s World, Airheads and, of course, School of Rock. What saves Metal Lords from feeling totally unimaginative is its decision to depict the gradual immersion of two characters into the metal scene. As opposed to being approached from a totally insular perspective, the film showcases the process of developing a new musical taste, cementing itself in the teenage wonder of subversive discovery.
Metal Lords is adept at converting viewers into metalheads themselves, but it might leave veteran listeners wanting more. Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello occupies the role of executive music producer (though his own band’s music is mostly lacking from the film), offering a soundtrack featuring the best of Metallica, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Yet, it also feels like a relatively paltry selection; certain needle drops are even repeated—specifically the first few licks of Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder”—which comes off as a tad lazy considering Morello’s curatorial insight. Yet as a crash course for the unlearned, Metal Lords delivers plenty of earworms, including the original tune Skullfucker eventually plays during the battle of the bands (co-written by Morello and Weiss). Clearly, a lot of heavy metal heart went into the film—even if it’s crowded by its inspirations and rudimentary in its music cues. Metal Lords might falter, but it never feels like a totally self-serious subgenre study, finding the humor and absurdity in dedicating one’s young life to a movement that’s much more popular than a few Portland-area teenagers might like to admit.
Director: Peter Sollett
Writer: D.B. Weiss
Stars: Jaeden Martell, Isis Hainsworth, Adrian Greensmith, Brett Gelman, Sufe Bradshaw, Noah Urrea, Analesa Fisher, Michelle Fang, Phelan Davis, Joe Manganiello
Release Date: April 8, 2022 (Netflix)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan