This Is GWAR [Nightstream Review]

Even if you don't listen to heavy metal music, you're probably at least somewhat familiar with GWAR. The band has existed on the periphery of pop culture for more than thirty years now, thanks to their elaborate onstage shows that combine outrageous costumes and gallons of spewing blood (among other bodily fluids). Not everyone gets the joke; they've definitely stirred up their share of controversy. People who do get it recognize what a unique place the group holds in the music business. GWAR somehow manages to spoof heavy metal music while simultaneously excelling at it. Whatever your take on them, the documentary This Is GWAR, which had its virtual premiere at the 2021 Nightstream festival, will – as the metalheads say – melt your face off.

Early scenes in the movie reveal how GWAR was born in Richmond, Virginia, when aspiring filmmaker Hunter Jackson met punk musician Dave Brockie. They combined their talents into a stage show that melded music with grotesque imagery inspired by horror movies and comic books. Before long, others were joining in, and an art collective was born. Members of the band made their own costumes and props. There were, however, creative tensions. Much of early GWAR was based on ideas Jackson had for a movie he wanted to make called Scumdogs of the Universe. As those ideas were incorporated into the band, they began to change, to his consternation.

Despite those conflicts, GWAR continued, albeit with a revolving door of members. There were drug problems, internal fights, a lucky break when they were featured on Beavis & Butthead, and a Grammy nomination that baffled everyone. (The story of what happened when they attended the ceremony is hilarious.) Despite never quite breaking into the mainstream, GWAR's profile was high enough to make a sizable imprint on the culture, even with the intentional vulgarity of their live show.

Many of the people behind the band are interviewed here, and none of them hold back. This Is GWAR has tons of candid observations. What's clear is that this was a labor of love for all of them. The creative outlet was as much an enticement as fame or money. Even when they wore themselves out from constant touring, the passion for doing something bold and original was what drove everyone. You don't get that kind of purity a lot in the entertainment world, and you certainly don't expect it from people who go by stage names like “Oderus Urungus” and “Flattus Maximus.”

There are lots funny/mind-blowing rock-and-roll stories in This Is GWAR. After all, when one of your band's players has a cuttlefish for a penis and routinely “masturbates” into the audience, you're not exactly in squeaky-clean Kenny G territory. What's less expected is that the documentary has a deep emotional side, as well. Two prominent deaths and a couple other genuine hardships have visibly impacted the key figures. For all the extreme content of the act, the GWAR family is still comprised of human beings capable of being hurt by tragedy.

That's the bottom line appeal of This Is GWAR. We know the image. We know the antics. Now we get to know the people (most of whom, it should be noted, seem totally normal, unlike their stage personas). We find out what inspires them to create this art, and how they've navigated the occasionally rough waters of collaboration. For the first time, viewers can get a peek behind the curtain to learn exactly how this one-of-a-kind musical act has risen, fallen, and survived over the decades.

It's an insightful film for music buffs of all types.

This Is GWAR is unrated, but contains adult language, drug content, and provocative images of sex/violence. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.