A parachute without a parachute that doesn’t work – The El Duce Tapes (BFI London Film Festival Review)

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For those who are not aware of the man El Duce, aka Eldon Duke, this was lead singer of self-professed ‘rape-rock’ band The Mentors, mainly active throughout the 80s US punk scene. Alongside band members Heathen Scum, Insect on Acid, Sickie Wifebeater and Poppa Sneaky Spermshooter, he became the self-acclaimed figurehead of the shock rock scene including GWAR, GG Allin, et al, by regularly appearing on right-wing Christian shows and talk shows such as Jerry Springer to be as offensive as possible. During this time, long-term fan Ryan Sexton recorded lots of interviews and footage of the band onto VHS tapes, which resurfaced last year when Sexton was tidying out his garage. Passed onto directors Rodney Ascher and David Lawrence to try and make some sense out of the boxes of tapes, they set down to create a full-length documentary using the footage.

Like any fine racist, El Duce gives completely contradictory messages, mostly through a slur of drunkenness. He criticises his father, who worked on bomb technology for the American military, for crimes against humanity, yet goes into full-on Trump mode when proposing a wall on the Mexican border with active snipers. He continuously says he has black friends (a tell-tale sign if there was ever one) yet persists with Nazi speech and white supremacy propaganda. Even when his band notoriety began to slip away, he still managed to make himself headlines by saying that he was asked to kill Kurt Cobain by Courtney Love. Two days later he himself was dead, fuelling conspiracy theories even more by those who live by them, the fact he was hit head-on by a train when drunk being skirted around a little to feed the narrative.

It’s all a little daft and easy to laugh at until you realise the crowds are predominately white teenage lads repeating the Nazi salutes and screaming about raping girls. It suddenly takes on a much more sinister form and one that is not too far away from the politics we’re seeing rearing its head again today. It is also noteworthy that a dressing down by a committee formed to bring down such bands massively fuelled their careers taking them from bars to supporting Black Flag in a matter of weeks. When will politicians every learn?

Of course, this all makes for a wonderful documentary, in which you feel for El Duce when he talks about taking on the overtly Conservatory Christian American Man and keeping music real, but then feel sorry for him as he struggles to get words out through a haze of alcohol. But as the film moves along, you tend toward the opinion that the man was just a bit of a woman-hating, racist dick. The El Duce Tapes never tries to push you toward one conclusion or another however, it performs the great feat of simply showing the footage without any form of social commentary.

Ascher and Lawrence do a wonderful job of making a coherent narrative from all the lost tapes, and it does make for one of the most entertaining music documentaries of the past few years. It’s fair to say that El Duce’s legacy will not be of a pioneering rock start fighting the system and holding the torch for freedom of speech, but that of an attention-seeking bigoted alcoholic. Engrossing viewing either way.

Dir: Rodney Ascher, David Lawrence, Ryan Sexton

Cast: El Duce, Eric Carlson, Steve Broy

Prd: Tim Kirk

DOP: Ryan Sexton

Country: USA

Year: 2019

Run Time: 100 minutes

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