When I was in college back in Washington, D.C., regional metal band GWAR was a really big deal on the concert circuit. I remember the first time I saw one of their shows, and the group I went with encouraged me to “wear something you would paint in.” It was great advice, as I left covered in a mixture of fake blood, imitation vomit, and an assortment of other manufactured bodily fluids that spewed from various orifices of the garishly costumed onstage performers. It was bloody disgusting, but also one of the most exhilarating concert experiences I’ve ever had.
“This Is GWAR” is a lively documentary that explores the band’s origin story, history, and their plans for the future. It’s a story of misfit artists and their creativity, talent, and friendship that grew out of the punk scene of Richmond, Virginia in the 1980s. The story is so entertaining that you don’t need to have any knowledge of GWAR to find something to enjoy. Fans, of course, are going to appreciate the film on a higher level.
Director Scott Barber crafts the story chronologically and isn’t afraid to tackle the tougher sides of GWAR’s history, from the revolving door of band members to the drug overdose of the band’s polarizing figurehead, Dave Brockie. The film celebrates Brockie’s genius and creativity that led to GWAR being born, and the documentary serves as a touching remembrance. But it also doesn’t shy away from his tendency to hog the spotlight, his bad behavior, and the rift he caused within the group. It’s this type of balanced storytelling that paints an overall, complete picture of the highs and lows over the years.
Band members past and present are interviewed, and Barber lets them tell their own stories. It’s easy to like these guys, as they are all nerdy and charismatic with massive personalities. The interviews left me wanting more, and I felt like I was hanging out just shooting the breeze with my funny best friends. I got a little emotional hearing how much the band and friendships mean to the original members, not expecting the film to get so sentimental. Even better, Barber talks with celebrity “super fans” like Tom Lennon, Ethan Embry, and Weird Al Yankovic, each sharing what they love about GWAR.
The film touches on GWAR’s most notorious history, like their music being banned after it was deemed to be “obscene filth,” their multiple arrests, and their fight to avoid censorship by their own record label. It explores the origin of the outrageous characters and costumes (like Beefcake the Mighty, Oderus Urungus, Flattus Maximus, and Slymenstra Hymen), and celebrates the band’s lowbrow, nasty style that fans absolutely adore. Despite all of this, the film reminds viewers that underneath these barbaric personas are ordinary looking guys with an extraordinary stage presence.
GWAR isn’t a case of style over substance, although many either dismiss or forget that beyond the gimmick and outrageous shows lies a group of artists who are quite skilled. They are talented, dedicated performers and, as the film puts it, the joke is that they are actually good musicians. Will this documentary create a new army of fans? Probably not. But it certainly is fun to take a ride alongside one of the most shocking group of degenerates to ever hit the music scene.