I’ve never especially been a devotee of the music of GWAR, the punk/heavy metal band that got its start in the mid-1980s and is famous for grotesque monster costumes and even more outrageous antics during live shows. I’m not sure I could even name any of their songs. But I always liked the idea of GWAR, and their personas and that something like them exists.
Just the names alone: In their heyday, the members had great nicknames like Oderus Urungus, Techno District, and Balsac the Jaws of Death, with female associates of the band taking on such personas as Slymenstra Hymen and Vulvatron. (And no- contrary to longstanding myth, GWAR does NOT stand for “God, what a racket,” or “God What an Awful Racket,” or any other phrase.)
With This is GWAR, which debuts on Shudder this week after a festival run last year, director Scott Barber gives GWAR the documentary treatment, telling the band’s story from beginning to end. Although, despite the 2014 death of longtime frontman Dave Brockie, the band continues to perform until this day, albeit without any of the original lineup. In fact, the band has shuffled its personnel constantly for the last four decades, and I don’t blame anyone for not being able to keep straight which band member is which.
It’s a wildly entertaining documentary, and also a very honest one, even turning into The History of the Eagles for a time as the band members share the details of their many bitter feuds with one another.
At the heart of it is that GWAR never really made a lot of money, and the band was somewhat allergic to mainstream success, leading to disagreements over whether to chase that. Probably the best moment in the whole film is when one of the band members says that GWAR probably would have had some radio hits if they had eased up on the profanity, which immediately cuts to a chorus of “Fish fuck, baby!”
If you don’t know GWAR’s story, what a story it is. The original group members got together in 1984 as art students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Several of them were in a band called Death Piggy when they thought it would be funny to dress in crazy costumes and pose as their own opening act. They were art kids, after all, although their act eventually became an act of rebellion against any sort of establishment.
The costumes originated from a planned student film called Scumdogs of the Universe, and eventually became the group’s default stage wear. Their live shows often featured the performers spraying various bodily fluids into the crowd, which on at least one occasion led to their arrest for obscenity (one member of the band comments that he thought it was cool that they got arrested for the same stuff as Lenny Bruce.)
This is GWAR goes through the chronology, including the band’s various brushes with mainstream pop culture. While they never got regular MTV airplay, GWAR’s biggest break ever came when they were shown on Beavis & Butt-head. In a different era of MTV, one of the band members later appeared in a Viva La Bam bit, popping up in bed between Bam Margera’s parents.
Aside from most of the living band members, the talking heads include “Weird Al” Yankovic, who’s starting to become a music doc perennial. Aside from all of the stories of times good and bad — including a horrifying-sounding carjacking in which a band member was shot — the film leads up to the story of Brockie’s death, and GWAR’s wrenching decision to continue as a band afterward.
Not many music documentaries would debut on a horror-oriented streaming service like Shudder, but GWAR is a natural there. This is a hugely enjoyable treatment of a band like no other, either musically or sartorially.