Biliana and Marina Grozdanova's "The Last Kamikazis of Heavy Metal" tells the story of a band on the verge--of something."
One moment, Lariyah Daniels dejectedly says, “I want to play arenas.” In the next scene, she’s onstage at Banks Street Bar, playing the small Mid-City bar like she was rocking the Smoothie King Center.
Daniels came to New Orleans as the singer in the Chicago-based heavy metal band Hessler, and a couple of the band’s ill-fated tours form the backbone of the documentary The Last Kamikazis of Heavy Metal, which screens Wednesday night at 8:30 p.m. at Canal Place 9 as part of the New Orleans Film Festival.
Daniels’ ambition doesn’t seem silly when the band plays. Hessler is hard, the songs have hooks, and she’s enough of a performer that you can imagine the group finding a following—30 years ago. In tight leather and eyeliner, everybody in Hessler seems to be anachronistic, particularly in the half-empty warehouses and watering holes they play on their way out west.
The documentary by Biliana and Marina Grozdanova walks a tricky line. It wasn’t their intention to make a real life Spinal Tap movie, but the band goes there anyway at times. When bandleader Igz Kincaid says that Kiss and Guns ’N Roses can’t last forever and that people are going to want something else, it’s not possible to avoid a WTF reaction. The string of venues on the western tour gets less probable with each stop, and many of the clichés that are mocked in This Is Spinal Tap come out of Hessler’s mouths far too easily.
But the Grozdanovas never let the film happen at the band’s expense. Hessler is Kincaid’s band and we learn that his micromanaging has caused the band to cycle through musicians. The merry-go-round continues during the time the Grozdanovas were shooting, but they don’t show Kincaid at his worst. He’s often patronizing, but we’re never shown why everybody who leaves the band swears to never go back.
For me, The Last Kamikazis of Heavy Metal takes on a needed layer when we realize how many members of the band are first or second generation immigrants. That knowledge made me wonder how the American Dream fits into the band’s story, if at all. Is Hessler a group of people who believe in the value of hard work and sincerity, only to discover that's not enough? Or, a bunch of musicians who share delusions that world will want a thing it doesn’t seem to want if the band is just passionate enough? Or, is something else happening?
“The film definitely has the theme of what it takes to make it in the music industry,” Biliana Grozdanova says.
“But it remains ambiguous, which we like it to be because once you see the film, you can deduce for yourself, Are these guys going to make it?” Marina Grozdanova continues.
The Grozdanovas are sisters from Bulgaria who moved to the United States after a period of traveling the world. Biliana lives in New Orleans and works at NOVAC, while Marina is going to grad school for film studies in Montreal.
They found Hessler while living in Chicago and checking out the music scene. They met members of the group before seeing them perform, then saw them open for a touring band at the House of Blues and thought Hessler would make a good subject for a movie.
“Who are these guys?” Marina asks. “What’s their deal? Why do they look—“
“—like it’s 1984?” Biliana finishes.
“And this front man who’s so eager and so determined and sure of himself—what’s going on here?” Marina continues. “We knew it had the potential of erupting or crumbling or becoming something huge. We knew that whatever direction it went in, it had the potential to be a cool story.”
They didn’t come to Last Kamikazis as fans of heavy metal, but they liked American rock ’n’ roll, which they first heard in Spain working on a documentary on a Celtic music festival in northern Spain—“A Celtic Woodstock,” Biliana says.
There was a period when the sisters were working on both projects at the same time, but they couldn’t wait with Hessler. They’d connected as immigrants, the story seemed open to go any direction, and the band members had big egos and no issue being filmed.
“What kind of subjects give you that access?” Biliana says.
The Grozdanovas toured with the band as if they were embedded, and that closeness and the time together made them sympathetic to the band. “Once you get to understand and love or hate them, you know why they’re in it for the long haul,” Marina says. They tried to stay focused on the musicians and their characters to keep the movie from being mean.
The Last Kamikazis of Heavy Metal isn’t a puff piece, though. Hessler has seen it, liked it, and has helped promote it, but Biliana is Igz Kincaid’s response after seeing it was I sound crazy. I sound like an absolute lunatic dictator.
“But he knows deep down inside that’s how he is,” she says.
One question the movie raises is how conscious the members of Hessler of their anachronistic sound. According to Marina, very.
“They stick to what their inspiration is. They’re all classic rock, classic heavy metal-influenced. That’s the music they want to make. They know they’re a part of that past. Even if they do recognize that they could be outdated, they push with that idea because they know that it can come back—“
“—or wish for it to,” Biliana concludes.