Takin’ a Ride

astro-vette

Back when poster shops could be found next to any video arcades it was one of the more popular designs: an astronaut seated in a Corvette floating in space with a nebula cloud behind him. It was a poster for a movie that provided an anthology mix of animated science fiction and fantasy tales featuring gratuitous violence, gratuitous nudity, and gratuitous drug use. I still have my cassette tape for the soundtrack album, featuring songs by Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Devo, and onward through the alphabet of stoner classics. The year was 1981. I was 14-years-old, and I ate it up and went back for seconds. By now most people of my generation will know that I’m talking about Gerald Potterton’s Heavy Metal (1981).

FilmStruck currently has ten titles available for viewing that they’ve clustered under the concept of “Animation for Adults,” and Heavy Metal was deservedly rated R, but I’m here to testify that it was 14-year-old boys like me, teenagers reading too many comic books and high on ditch weed, who were the true audience. The various stories that were loosely tied together were animated by different animation houses and took about three years to assemble with a budget of under ten million. Although the film would eventually double its production cost, it was panned by many critics for being sexist and juvenile… and dated. Which means that by today’s standards I could easily see it being offered up as the ultimate example of “the male gaze” in a Woman’s Studies class. Guilty as charged, to be sure, but for those who are willing to be a bit more forgiving of this particular time capsule, Heavy Metal has many charms to attest to its cult status.

HEAVY METAL (1981)

Heavy Metal was produced by Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel, the latter being the founder for Heavy Metal magazine which had its U.S. debut in 1977. Mogel was traveling through Paris in the mid-’70s when he came across Métal Hurlant (“Howling Metal”) and decided to license an American version which translated the graphic stories by various European artists. I grew up reading both versions, and credit the magazine for introducing me to the work of Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), Guido Crepax and many other great talents. The magazines eventually would include work by authors such as Harlan Ellison, William S. Burroughs and Stephen King, along with interviews with directors such as Federico Fellini and John Waters. For a young stoner into comics, books, movies, and vinyl it offered up a unique portal into different worlds.

Back to the movie version: The opening sequence featuring the aforementioned astronaut in a Corvette kicks off the narrative with a bang and music by Riggs (“Radar Rider”). When the astronaut gets home he shows his daughter a deadly green sphere which introduces itself as the Loc-Nar – a thing of pure evil that then proceeds to prove it. The Loc-Nar boasts of its destructive influence on other worlds and societies, thus providing us with a narrative thread for all the six segments that follow, beginning with the noirish “Harry Canyon.” Highlights in this story of a cab driver in a dystopian NYC circa 2031 include a voice-over by John Candy and songs by Blue Öyster Cult, Donald Fagaen, Riggs, Stevie Nicks, and Journey.

A note on the music. Sometimes the music is in the foreground, sometimes buried in the background. Problems with the music copyrights are the reason Heavy Metal was unavailable on home video for a while.

HEAVY METAL (1981)

“Den” is about a nerdy teenager (voiced by John Candy again), who finds the Loc-Nar and is transported to a different world and transformed into a muscle man who will end up having sex with a beautiful woman. Total teen-boy catnip pie-in-the-sky fantasy stuff including groan-inducing dialogue puns, such as when he says “She had the most beautiful eyes” when her naked breasts are first exposed. A fey leader gets the best line: “If you refuse, you die, she dies, everybody dies.” This segues into the segment titled “Captain Sternn” that transports us to a space station where a trial puts a man on the stand who, aided by the Loc-Nar, turns into a rampaging giant before being jettisoned into space. Cheap Trick gets the only song for this one.

HEAVY METAL (1981)

What follows is the “B-17″ segment about pilots fighting zombies, set to “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)” by Don Felder, one of the more memorable tracks. The writer for this one was Dan O’Bannon, taking a cue from both his work on Dark Star and Alien. A segment titled “Neverwhere Land” that would have bridged “Den” and “B-17″ was cut due to time constraints although it can be found on the 1996 VHS release as well as a bonus feature on the DVD release.

HEAVY METAL (1981)

“So Beautiful and So Dangerous” is one of the funnier segments thanks to its premise of stoner pilots who do a sloppy job of docking into a space station. This one gets packed with six tracks and has the work of Cheap Trick, Grand Funk Railroad, Nazareth, Don Felder, Sammy Hagar and Trust. All of which culminates with “Taarna,” which involves a strong and beautiful warrior woman who will tie things up with the epilogue. The tracks include double-headers by Black Sabbath (The Mob Rules, E5150), DEVO (Through Being Cool, Working in the Coal Mine) and one by Blue Öyster Cult (Vengence [The Pact] ).

It will not surprise anyone reading to know that the cumulative body count of all the segments above supposedly comes to 69.

Pablo Kjolseth

10 Responses Takin’ a Ride
Posted By EricJ : December 11, 2016 2:22 pm

Heavy Metal could only have come out of the early-70′s-to-mid-80′s “Disney or Weirdo” days (starting with ’68′s Yellow Submarine, going up through ’72′s Fritz the Cat, and ending with a horrible, crashing outdated thud before Cool World and Thief & the Cobbler came out in the 90′s) when Disney was still seen as ancient, monolithic, corporate, kiddy G-rated “establishment”, and as having the monopolistic lock on all animation.
Prompting a lot of “art” animators to try and shock the teacher by either doing weird indie pieces like Jimmy Murakami and Richard Williams, or by trying to go the Ralph Bakshi route and say “Look! It’s animation, but it ISN’T G-RATED!”

Obviously, going in a grungy R-rated comic-book style is good for adapting a grungy R-rated comic book, and it probably helps that the movie wasn’t directed by animators who were fans of the magazine’s style, and not by Bakshi’s self-loathing misogynism, like “Fire & Ice” and “American Pop” were.
With Nelvana’s odd “Rock & Rule” coming along in ’83, and “Starchaser: Legend of Orin” wrapping things up in ’85 in time for Disney to have its renaissance again, Heavy Metal was probably the last great blast of the Animation Underground dark-ages, and probably the only other watchable thing to come out of it besides Submarine, Watership Down, or the Bakshi Lord of the Rings.

Posted By EricJ : December 11, 2016 2:26 pm

(Typo: “Was directed by fans of the magazine’s style”.)

Posted By Doug : December 11, 2016 3:25 pm

I knew what you meant, Eric. I used to read “Heavy Metal”, too.
Problem with the film for me is the attempt to mash together music and the stories. I certainly didn’t have rock music in mind while reading the magazine though I can understand that others would, that some would think that each compliments the union.
This isn’t “Fantasia” where the action would note for note express the music.
How about this-scrap the music from the rock groups and hire a talented musician to create a true score for the film.

Posted By L. Rob Hubbard : December 11, 2016 8:39 pm

They did – Elmer Bernstein composed one of his best scores for the film, and it’s very present for the most part. Some of it got shunted in favor of songs (B-17 had a strong bit, but the Felder “Heavy Metal” song was used to open, to its detriment). The songs were the main attraction for marketing, but Bernstein’s score did get a quieter LP release, then FSM released the entire score on CD a few years ago.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : December 11, 2016 11:07 pm

But the villains emerging in Taarna is synced up to E5150/The Mob Rules.

Posted By swac44 : December 13, 2016 3:27 pm

I always wondered if Disney doing The Black Cauldron was an attempt to take advantage of this wave of animated fantasy films. I haven’t watched it in years, but I remember being pleasantly surprised by it when I finally caught it.

Had the great fortune of meeting Gerald Potterton when he was in town as a juror for our annual Atlantic Film Festival, but I was more interested in asking him about working with Buster Keaton on the NFB short The Railrodder in the early ’60s. It’s a terrific film that sees Buster riding the rails across Canada on a small maintenance car, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, and seeing the sights along the way with some great gags that sees the genius of silent film still able to perform slapstick stunts. Potterton told me about shooting segments outside of Halifax, when the crew was bombarded by seagulls on Lawrencetown Beach, and how Buster remained fearless and creative from start to finish.

Posted By swac44 : December 13, 2016 3:37 pm

Speaking of Potterton and the National Film Board of Canada, here’s one of his earliest films, a 1963 collaborative short that I used to watch in class on 16mm in elementary school: Christmas Cracker. For Canadians of a certain age, this film (which includes interstitial bits by animation pioneer Norman McLaren) is a real flashback, but still retains its charm.

Posted By Zachary Nathanson : December 19, 2016 1:56 pm

Heavy Metal is one of the most overlooked films in the ’80s that deserves some recognition. The bands like: Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Grand Funk Railroad, Black Sabbath, and Devo to name a few were my introductions to not just the film, but a killer soundtrack.

This isn’t your typical Disney or Kiddie cartoon flick, this is animation at it’s peak. Done by some of the people who did Yellow Submarine and Animal Farm (Halas and Batchelor) along with Neal Adams who did work on the film, it pushed the envelope.

I hope to see Heavy Metal get the Criterion treatment next year. It’s about time this film gets to be on The Criterion Collection for next year. While Yellow Submarine opened my eyes as a kid to show that it wasn’t just a Disney film, Heavy Metal was almost like giving Mickey Mouse the big middle finger.

Posted By Pablo Kjolseth : December 19, 2016 4:39 pm

Thanks for the comments. While I’m familiar with THE RAILRODDER, the CHRISTMAS CRACKER was new to me. A former colleague and animation teacher was a big fan of Norman McLaren, and two of her former students, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, were surely paying attention.

YELLOW SUBMARINE is a film I revisit every few years, and I love that its anarchic humor plays to both adults and children. It’s also a perfect fit for the interesting times we live in now.

Posted By SeeingI : January 4, 2017 3:52 pm

That B-17 sequence scared the CRAP out of me as a kid.

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