What's Up, Docs?: Twisted Foxcatchin' Sister and Mister

We Are Twisted Fucking Sister (2014)
Dir.: Andrew Horn
Cinema 4 Rating: 7/9

In the last installment of What's Up, Docs?, I lamented the fact that an HBO documentary about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- Kareem: Minority of One -- however excellently done throughout, ended its story too early in his life. I knew the subject's story up to the point of the film's conclusion, and I wanted to know far more about what Kareem has been up to in the years since he stopped being in the spotlight of everyday professional basketball life. For me, Kareem had all but disappeared, and I would only see him in fleeting cameo appearances on shows like The Colbert Report. For a man who writes books, makes music, and seems to have a flourishing artistic and spiritual life, this seemed a mistake to me. The film largely skipped over the many years since his retirement, and I felt this was a mistake in letting the viewer get to know its subject more intimately.

And now we come to the opposite case: We Are Twisted Fucking Sister, a documentary about the flamboyantly attired heavy metal band that dominated MTV in its early days. Everybody knows We're Not Gonna Take It and a good chunk of that "everybody" probably still remembers I Wanna Rock, their other major hit. Twisted Sister broke up for many years, but picked the guitars up again in the 21st century, still touring and rocking and smearing makeup on their faces. Lead singer Dee Snider often makes the news with outrageous statements or when he takes stands on various issues, and the band continues apace with most of their most famous lineup intact.

But I knew nothing about the band before they made it big. While I am certainly within the proper age range for the Twisted Sister fanbase, I was on the complete other side of the country in their club touring days, and never heard of them at all until MTV blew them up for the world. And their music was never really for me anyway. I ran through a short metal phase in about the same amount of time as my disco phase (which included zero dancing, just a brief like of the music in my tween years). I never discounted metal, and have many bands in the genre that I appreciate, but it was more in line with my general interest in rock overall, which takes in every genre and every shtick equally.

Now, I will admit to one thing about Twisted Sister that I truly love. I am a big fan of We're Not Gonna Take It, their most iconic song and their biggest hit. For me, the song is a distillation of every component that made for some of the greatest songs of The Who, and it is not hard for me to connect Dee Snider's wailing growl of the song's lyrics with those of Roger Daltrey in his youthful heyday. (Hell, the song even has a completely Xeroxed title from a song off of Tommy, even if the intent of the songs are dramatically different.) Snider thumbs his nose at society and its hangups with exactly the right combination of disdain and satiric purpose, and the taunting guitar solo at the song's center serves to back up his points. While I may have never become an actual "fan" of Twisted Sister, nor did I ever buy any of their records in the '80s, I will never deny that I (not so secretly) love We're Not Gonna Take It. As a document of its time, and even as a bona fide rock classic, I think the song still has what it takes. (I even think the video is still quite entertaining and holds up pretty well too.) And I always sing along when it comes on the radio.

Andrew Horn's documentary on the band is fully cognizant that we know who Twisted Sister is by this point, and that we know their biggest hits without ever having to really bring them up in a 135-minute film about the band. Yes, We Are Twisted Fucking Sister is quite long for what many might initially perceive as being a film about a not especially intriguing subject, especially when you consider that the story cuts off at the point that they get their big record deal with Atlantic Records and finally start getting promoted the way they believe they should have during their long tenure in the New York City area club scene.

The story starts off in typical film bio fashion with a recounting of how the band started, sans Snider, with original member Jay Jay French both running and managing the band. Like many bands that have lasted far beyond the time they probably should have, Twisted Sister had a revolving door that saw numerous permutations of the group come and go like clockwork, until finally settling upon the core that would lead to their success. It is well over an hour into the film before the fifth member of this core, drummer A.J. Pero (who died a few years ago) even gets mentioned, so you can see that director Horn was really intent on telling as much of their early story as possible, and never really worried about getting the whole story into the film.

And this is what fascinated me about We Are Twisted Fucking Sister. In most documentaries about a particular artist or band, you kind of glide through the early content until you finally arrive at what you would consider the meat of the story: when the hero makes it big, the bucks are there, and the party and success is nonstop for many year. You then ride that gravy train until the inevitable point where either there is a gradual easing into middle or older age, or there is some tragic circumstances looming for the subject that stops the party cold. In this film, the early years of struggle and frustration, of filling giant halls with sold out shows but receiving little to no support from producers and record companies, of being perceived as faddish or silly because of their stage antics, is the story. Horn knows we know Twisted Sister; he is fascinated with how they got to be Twisted Sister.

I have to admit, I found all of the club stories and the series of bizarre incidents that briefly forestalled their careers and the battles with record company heads too much fun. I loved the footage of their stage shows in dark, sweaty clubs in the late '70s, and hearing them pump out old Lou Reed and Judas Priest songs was pretty cool. The story (and footage) of their early British TV appearance where Snider brings Lemmy Kilmister and Brian Robinson of Motörhead onstage was also a highlight, and brings a unifying moment to their struggles over the years. The documentary only mentions their success in a tag at the end, and declares that it is "a story for another movie". If Horn intends to make a follow-up, I have no way of knowing, but I would certainly watch it after having seen this one.

I am unsure from the way that they talk about each other during their individual interview segments whether French and Snider are actually friends by this point -- they don't exactly rip each other, but it seems they have their differences -- but something has kept them together all of these years. It's probably the money, but if it's just the rock 'n' roll, then that's good enough for me.

Team Foxcatcher (2016)
Dir.: Jon Greenhalgh
Cinema 4 Rating: 7/9

I think that the major failing of the film Foxcatcher -- as good as I thought it was when it came out -- is that nose on Steve Carell. In trying to approximate the schnoz of murderous philanthropist John Eleuthère Du Pont, the filmmakers gave me a focal point I couldn't get past. No matter how terse the drama around the characters, and the fine acting of all involved, including the Oscar-nominated Carell, the fact is that the nose was just too much of a character of its own in the finished film; the way it added to Du Pont's thousand-yard stare, and the way it caused Carell to breathe through his mouth oddly. The entire time I was watching Foxcatcher, I kept telling myself, "Wow... Carell is really trying to disappear into this role," when the truth is that he really hadn't. His false nose, while done excellently on a technical level, had taken over the film, in much the same way that Nicole Kidman's did in The Hours.

Looking past the surface, the real truth is that John Du Pont was simply a weird guy. Yes, he had a nose that jutted out like his face like a patrician sculpture, but it wasn't that strange of a nose. It did give him an odd look, but in reviewing home movies and news footage of his philanthropic activities, what comes across more is the distant look in his eyes that never seems to really connect with anyone in the room, and that serves to make him seem like he is thinking of twelve other things that have nothing whatsoever to do with anyone around him. 

By most accounts, Du Pont was a lonely soul, who found friendship through his sports-related concerns, including building a training facility for amateur wrestling that would determine the course of his later life in tragic ways. He longed to be a successful athlete on his own terms, but what those terms were seemed to bend with the way in which others either treated him or were accepted by him, or with how far they would allow him to display his increasingly erratic behavior. That he was paranoid to a major fault is without a doubt, but how can one not be so when you don't really know if people like you or not? And when you are the one holding up the checkbook?

In Team Foxcatcher, a new Netflix documentary, the intent seems to be to tell the full story of Du Pont and the events that lead up to his eventual 1996 murder of Olympic champion wrestler Dave Schultz, whom he had befriended and brought to Foxcatcher Farms to train and coach the future stars of American wrestling. Not just American wrestling; he also had a deep fascination with a Bulgarian wrestler named Valentin Dimitrov; so deep that Du Pont (of reliably French lineage) proclaimed that he was actually Bulgarian at a certain point, when there is not a lick of proof that he was. But despite his, er, let's call them dalliances, with various wrestlers over the years, at the center of the story is his seemingly solid friendship with Schultz, a gold medal winner who came to live with his family at Foxcatcher with tragic results. 

The documentary downplays the angle involving Dave's younger brother, Mark (shown as the solid third point on the triangle in the film version), and concentrates more on the background and character of Du Pont himself: his mistrust of others, his isolation from the world on a two thousand acre paradise where he pretty much had carte blanche to operate any way he saw it, and the various characters who spun in and out of his circle. We also come to know Schultz's wife and children, all now grown, and hear their tales of living on the Farm around this oddball king of their world. 

The most fascinating part was the reaction of one of Schultz's daughters, who shows remarkable empathy for Du Pont after he died in prison in 2010 from chronic pulmonary disease, lamenting the fact that Du Pont died so alone in the world, even after murdering her father. It added an angle that I had not considered, that even in tales that have become so well documented as the Team Foxcatcher murder, we still might not understand fully all of the motives of the parties concerned or what drove them to their tragic ends.


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