‘Lords Of Chaos’ Director Connects Beyoncé + Black Metal
Before he made big-budget music videos for Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and U2, award-winning director Jonas Åkerlund cut his teeth in heavy metal.
He began his career as the drummer in seminal proto-black metal band Bathory, so it makes a special kind of sense that his latest feature film, 'Lords of Chaos' (partly inspired by the book of the same name), dramatizes the tabloid story of Norwegian black metal.
“I guess the Norwegian black metal scene did not have that for a while, but to me, metal was always very sexy and fun,” Åkerlund told me during a lengthy chat for a recent episode of Speak N’ Destroy, my podcast about all things Metallica.
“My first American job was Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light' [and] I had kind of the same attitude,” he explained. “Let’s have fun with it. It was really a playful attitude to that whole era. All of the creativity was very spontaneous but at the same time, smart.”
The Swedish born filmmaker, who spent some time in England in his youth soaking up the New Wave of British heavy metal, joined Speak N’ Destroy to talk about his three music videos for Metallica. He began his journey with the band with the cinematic clip for “Turn the Page,” followed by the house party ruckus of “Whiskey in the Jar,” both songs from Metallica’s 2-disc cover songs set, Garage Inc.
Åkerlund himself is the connective tissue between otherwise disparate figures in high-profile pop and the extreme music underground. His first music video was for his fellow Swedes in doom metal merchants Candlemass. The wonderfully lo-fi clip for “Bewitched” features moshing in the snow and a cameo from the late Per Yngve Ohlin, aka Mayhem singer Dead, one of the central characters in Lords of Chaos.
The controversial clip for Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” introduced Åkerlund to the industry at large. “Smack My Bitch Up” led to “Ray of Light,” which earned a Grammy and a record seven MTV Video Music Awards for Madonna in 1998.
Huge MTV hits followed, including clips for U2 (“Beautiful Day,” “Walk On”), Christina Aguilera (“Beautiful”), Britney Spears (“Hold it Against Me”), Lady Gaga (“Paparazzi,” “Telephone”), Maroon 5, Beyoncé, Coldplay, Taylor Swift and more.
“When I came to America with ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ everybody was so interested in talking about it. Everybody asked me, ‘Who do you want to work with?’ So I did a little bit of a media flirt with them — I kept saying, ‘Metallica, Metallica’ in every interview. I was thinking eventually it was going to get to them."
Åkerlund’s Hollywood feature film debut came with Spun, a dark dramedy about meth amphetamine users starring the late Brittany Murphy and Mickey Rourke, with cameos from musicians Deborah Harry (Blondie) and Rob Halford (Judas Priest). This year saw the release of the graphic novel based neo-noir action flick 'Polar' (starring Mads Mikkelsen and Vanessa Hudgens) on Netflix followed by this month's 'Lords of Chaos.'
Like many metal fans, the filmmaker was fascinated by the cultural currents that converged to create Norwegian black metal and the ensuing controversies that surrounded it, from the torching of historic churches to suicide and even murder.
“I saw the church burnings on the news, on CNN, here in America,” Åkerlund recalled. “I started to think about this, as not a movie maybe, but something else. Something happened here that is special. It stayed with me. I couldn’t get rid of it.”
He worked periodically on a script over the years, even as other Hollywood attempts to dramatize the story came and went. “Five or six years ago I decided to really go for it. I’m going to do it my way, with my integrity, and it’s going to be my perspective with this film. Everything took forever because of the darkness of the material. It was one of those projects where everybody you pitched it to loved it, but nobody would put money into it.”
Despite what he described as an “uphill battle” to secure financing, retain creative control over his vision and avoid censorship, 'Lords of Chaos' resonated with audiences as it made its way to over 30 film festivals around the world. The movie mixes dark humor and scenes of teenage revelry with grimly realistic depictions of self-harm, arson and murder, all with the director’s trademark visuals.
“People that know the scene, people that [were] even there, connect to it and understand why the movie is the way it is. People that had never heard of it also connect to it, because it’s kind of a universal story. We’ve seen it with kids in Brazil. We’ve seen it in the suburbs of England with 'This is England'. The list goes on with these kinds of movies. It’s a story that a lot of people can connect to in many ways.”
'Lords of Chaos' ended up bringing Jonas back around to Metallica. The music video for “ManUNkind,” from Hardwired… to Self-Destruct!, was actually filmed on the movie’s set, and features the actors in character as Mayhem performing the song.
“I had a few years where I was out of luck. They’d send me music, [but] I couldn’t do it, and we couldn’t figure out working together [again]. I was always a fan and always stayed in touch with Lars, so I was kind of bummed about that,” he said.
Metallica reached out again while Åkerlund was filming 'Lords Of Chaos.' Most of the movie was shot in Oslo, Norway, while the Mayhem club performance was filmed in Budapest.
“Right when I was in Hungary shooting they called me and said they were gong to do a lot of videos for this new album. ‘You can pick one and do whatever you want. That was the whole idea with this album, a million directors doing whatever they want.”
“The same afternoon I went to our rehearsal studio where I had my actors with instruments rehearsing for the movie. I asked the actors, ‘You have 12 songs to learn. Why don’t you learn one more while you’re at it?’ Jack Kilmer, who played Dead in the movie, is a big Metallica fan. He was over the moon.”
To hear more from Jonas about the 'Lords Of Chaos' filmmaking process as well as Metallica centric interviews with M. Shadows (Avenged Sevenfold), Robb Flynn (Machine Head), Lzzy Hale (Halestorm), Gary Holt (Exodus/Slayer), David Ellefson (Megadeth) and many more, check out the Speak N' Destroy podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and elsewhere.
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