From 1970 until now, few people knew that the American hard rock underground music scene has a dedicated, almost cult-like, following. The "underground" can be misleading and inaccurate.
A band can be considered underground as long as it doesn’t get mainstream success, major record label deals excluded. While a major record label deal might be the holy grail for most bands and musicians, in many cases it could be the kiss of death, no more so than in hard rock.
In Such Hawks, Such Hounds, director John Srebalus weaves steadily but disproportionately through the high and low points of the hard rock scene. The documentary is focused, but speeds through the ’70s and ’80s in favor of an emphasized contemporary look at the ’90s and ’00s.
Early pioneers like Black Flag and the Melvins paved the way for the experimentation of hard rock (it was interesting to hear so many different definitions of the genre) and groundbreaking guitar techniques and use. I was surprised by the mention of Metallica because I didn’t think they were even considered to be hard rock. Apparently the band straddled between metal and punk and sometimes hard rock.
With anything about music, you must make mention of the label system. Nineties band Sleep spent years trying to release its 52-minute opus Jerusalem but was stifled by the label’s inability to come up with a marketing strategy for the single song album. While I usually don’t defend labels, you do need to look at their point of view when it comes to trying to sell a record that doesn’t naturally scream "radio".
One interesting part of the documentary was the slight abhorrence for the label of ’90s hard rock as stoner rock. Drug use in the ’70s gets that era called psychedelic while the ’90s gets stoned. I agree; it’s not fair.
Srebalus is a first-time filmmaker, and it partly shows in Such Hawks, Such Hounds with unpolished transitions and not enough extended music numbers. What’s a music documentary without lots of music?
Looking around the audience and you can see people bobbing their head to various bits of music, but for a hard rock novice who has only heard of bands like the Melvins and Comets on Fire by name (although I have listened to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”) it would have been refreshing and poignant to include long takes of specific songs that the documentary highlights, which it does to a degree in its second half.
The documentary is as much an ode to the bands and fans of American hard rock, but it could have been a little more had there been a bigger emphasis on the music. Interviews with bands and musicians can only go so far, and that’s where the music could and should speak for itself.
After the screening, Srebalus made himself available for audience questions. A couple of tidbits:
- Srebalus wanted to include participation from the Melvins in the documentary, but it became apparent that they didn’t want to be in it.
- Because the film was self-financed, European and Asian hard rock were omitted. But on a message board, someone from Europe cited his interest in tackling the subject to an enthusiastic Srebalus.
You can read more about the film at the official website.