Documentary Review: Armenian-American rocker speaks “Truth to Power”

Serj Tankian is one of those rock stars who has decided to use his fame and his voice to speak out on political issues he finds important. The lead singer for the LA metal band System of a Down is one of those guys “with a chip on his shoulder,” his bandmates admit.

Sometimes that comes through in the lyrics to anti-Iraq War songs like “B.Y.O.B.” and “Boom.” And sometimes he interrupts his often-screamed lyrics, sung over the din of drums and electric guitars, to talk about geopolitics, genocide, freedom of speech and human rights.

“Truth to Power” is a documentary-length profile of Tankian’s activism, about “using the power of celebrity to get real political change.” He is, his friend and fellow rocker-activist Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) says, one of those guys “moving the goalpost of the ideas that you can talk about in popular music.”

And the main idea Tankian wants to talk about is the Armenian genocide of 1915-16, getting the world and especially the Turks — who committed it — to admit that it happened.

“Truth to Power” is too brief to get deep into that issue, or even that deeply into Tankian’s life (we don’t meet his family). But it does present an interesting portrait of an artist speaking out, stepping into it every now and then, sometimes irking bandmates and fans with his outspokenness.

At one point he reads the critical comments from the band’s website from fans wishing he’s put a sock in it and get busy on a new album.

Garin Hovannisian’s film has Tankian give a history of the band, their “discovery” by producer/sage Rick Rubin and explosion in popularity on the cusp of 9/11. Rubin appears here, urging his star to speak his truth and keep at it, no matter the blowback.

And as you’d expect, when you’re broaching controversial subjects in the Middle East, there is blowback. We can guess why we’re not seeing Tankian’s wife and son. When you criticize Turkey and its Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, there will be threats.

As he and his bandmates talk about their music and their impact, anecdotes about business arrangements with Atlantic Records that fell through because of founder Ahmet Ertegun‘s philanthropic support of Turkish genocide-denial organizations, and radio conglomerate bans of their music come up.

The bracing thing in this story is how this alt-metal act handled that Dixie Chicks treatment. Tankian pushed the release of their song “Boom,” protesting the impending invasion of Iraq, as a music video — directed by Michael Moore. In your face? You bet.

“Truth to Power” gives us a bit of Serj lobbying Congress and recalling his publication of a thoughtful, heartfelt and ill-timed 9/11 “reasons it happened” explainer that led to a Howard Stern bulldozing as he tried to defend himself. And we see him get himself involved in Armenian politics in Armenia itself, despairing at the country’s anti-democratic turn, reveling in the people power of the country’s “2018 revolution.”

Fans of System of a Down already know a lot of this, I dare say. For everyone else, “Truth to Power” never gets much beyond giving us a brief primer Tankian’s activism, a sampling of their songs and a taste of his solo passions — writing a musical, performing with a jazz band and an orchestra, painting.

Despite his dabbling in many indulgences, Serj Tankian doesn’t come off as shallow or particularly superficial here. But this documentary almost does.

MPA Rating: unrated, profanity

Cast: Serj Tankian, Rick Rubin, Shavo Odadjian, Daron Malakian,  John Dolmayan and Carla Garapedian

Credits: Scripted and directed by Garin Hovannisian. An Oscilloscope Labs release.

Running time: 1:19

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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