GWAR has had one of the longest, strangest trips around the fringes of punk and heavy metal music notoriety of any cult band.
Movie and video game appearances, a Grammy nomination, embraced by Beavis and Butthead even though MTV wanted nothing to do with them, arrested for on-stage obscenity in Charlotte, reviled by generations of culture warriors, poster freaks for rock against censorship — yeah, they “peaked” in the ’90s.
But they’d been around for a decade before all that happened. And they’re with us still, bringing their gory spectacle — an NC-17 rated sci-fi/horror/fantasy burlesque of heavy metal — to clubs and venues and closing in on their fourth decade.
Generations have embraced them, or at least shown up to see what all the blood-and-semen-spewing fuss is about.
“This is Gwar” interviews scores of members, past and present, to guide us on their journey, from the art collective of Virginia Commonwealth University students who founded it, through the decades on the road, an attempted robbery that turned into attempted murder, deaths and endurance, often flirting with great fame and riches but never quite getting there.
It’s a fascinating, funny and occasionally sad, but not “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” sad. Because GWAR, a novelty act that never stopped being novel, lives on, changing and replacing members, “never getting rich,” but putting on these unforgettable comedy, slaughter, satire and guitar solos shows.
Some 42 members and former members are listed in the closing credits of Scott Barber’s film. But more than one survivor suggests “there must have been a hundred” people playing, singing, vamping or play-acting in this outfit over its nearly 40 year existence.
You have to love their origin story. Artist and aspiring filmmaker Hunter Jackson started building props and costumes for this gonzo film he was planning, “Scumdogs of the Universe.” Dave Brockie was a theatrical, wild-eyed guitarist and singer for a popular Richmond, Va. punk band, Death Piggy. They decided to don Jackson’s costumes and perform, with Jackson joining this performance art theater onstage for comical dismemberments, decapitations and “spewings” performed by an”alien” band that somehow ended up on Earth.
It was a little Conan the Barbarian, a lot of KISS, with a whiff of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” slaughter amidst all the music. A grand experiment was born and took off, playing local then touring far and wide.
Weird Al Yankovic recalls the numbers of tour dates that he and his band were delayed in playing because the venue “was still cleaning up the GWAR show” from the previous night, or several nights before. They made and continue to make such a mess.
Actor Thomas Lennon and others marvel at the musicianship that guys and GWAR Woman (Collette Miller and later Danielle Stampe) wore while performing.
And then they got (almost) big, found their music or music videos included in movies and “Beavis and Butthead” and got the attention of the Parents Music Resource Center and censors and obscenity law enforcers. Their show is nothing if not lewd, crude and lascivious.
“Shut down in Athens (Ga.),” “arrested in Charlotte (NC),” headlining MTV News, even though the network never really accepted them, despite Mike Judge’s embrace in “Beavis and Butthead.”
I recall interviewing them right around the time of their Charlotte arrests. But the fact that I asked the same question many of you have points to their ultimate “cult band” fare.
“Are they still around?
“This is GWAR” — aptly set to premiere on horror’s Shudder streaming service — is a generally upbeat and exhaustively-thorough film, with seemingly everybody who ever played in GWAR or participated in the Slave Pit art collective that keeps them costumed and theatrical interviewed, a tale with hear triumphs and near tragedies, and then a real one, climaxing with a funeral fit for a Viking — or a founding member of GWAR.
Rating: unrated, simulated sex and violence, profanity
Cast: Hunter Jackson, Danielle Stampe, Pete Lee, Mike Derks, Chuck Varga, Don Drakulich, Brad Roberts, Collette Miller, Michael Bishop, Matt Maguire, with Alex Winter, Ethan Embry, Thomas Lennon and Weird Al Yankovic.
Credits: Directed by Scott Barber. A Shudder release.
Running time: 1:53