As The Palaces Burn: Lamb of God Documentary Reviewed
If you are a metalhead, regardless of your feelings about Lamb of God, you should stop and watch this documentary, because this story isn’t really about Lamb of God, but about our community and the unique challenges we face as both musicians and fans within it.
The documentary began as a project to “turn the cameras on the fans” by interviewing fans as Lamb of God embarked on another tour around the globe for the recent Resolution album cycle. We hear and see some realities of being in a successful metal band; the dudes are taken care of, but are always a breath away from financial disaster, and even that requires constant touring to avoid. Once their progression from backwoods passion project to globally acclaimed metal ambassadors is established, the film begins to introduce Lamb of God fans, letting them share how metal has helped them through their struggles. We meet a young man from Colombia who lost a staggering amount of family members to the drug wars, and one of only two female metal vocalists in all of India who endures quite a bit of public ostracizing for her non-ladylike behavior. Listening to them, any metalhead is going to feel that pain of relation, that gratitude for the subculture that has adopted us. It was a beautiful platform for a documentary that took a severe left turn when, during its filming, vocalist Randy Blythe was arrested upon landing in the Czech Republic, charged with intentional manslaughter in the death of fan Daniel Nozek at their 2010 concert. Faced with the decision of scrapping the whole fan-based documentary or using the crisis as part of the narrative, director Don Argott went with the latter, building a story that feels like it elevates this band’s journey into mythological territory.
The incident for which Blythe was arrested is a scene every concert-goer has seen played out a thousand times, watching fan after fan climb up and stage dive into the crowd. After Lamb of God’s show, Nozek fell into a deep coma and eventually passed from what was diagnosed as internal hemorrhaging from a severe head injury. Some witnesses claimed that Blythe pushed Nozek into the crowd, where he hit his head on either the concrete floor or a security barrier, but the story is far more complex than that. There were security issues at the show, and two of the three available videos demonstrate some serious breaches of protocol by the local security guards. Any witnesses to the crime are now remembering a night two years passed, which created many holes in their testimony. More than that, the Czech Republic didn’t charge Blythe with negligence, but manslaughter with intent to harm, a charge they will ultimately fail to prove even to Nozek’s pained family. This darkness comes at a time in Blythe’s life when he has finally faced his alcoholism and cleaned up, to great acclaim from his bandmates and managers—Blythe’s hard work to better his life makes this situation all the more bitter.
We are let into this highly emotional world through interviews with the band and their close label team, as well as appearances from several music industry peers, and eventually, Blythe’s legal team and a local reporter who covered the events surrounding the trial. This is about as frightening a prospect as I can imagine a musician facing; seeing his bandmates tear up about a process they are powerless to stop is heart-wrenching. It brings home a very particular, lonely terror that comes when you must face, as Blythe did, that you are part of a subculture that a great deal of people find intimidating and wrong. For metalheads, stage diving and mosh pits and musician aggression are just another day at the office. But once you stop and think about how difficult it is to explain the nuances of such behavior to an outsider— try to make clear that this very obviously primal conduct doesn’t actually have any targeted malice behind it—well, the night gets cold, real fast. Add to this the insane stress of a language and culture barrier, and I would say the only people who don’t respect Blythe for his incredibly stoic bearing during this fiasco are either fools or liars.
Through trial footage, we are given more detail about the prosecution’s case—and the clear reasons for Blythe’s eventual exoneration—than ever before. There is a harrowing moment when Blythe faces the uncle of the deceased as he testifies that, while he doesn’t believe Blythe is or should be held responsible for his nephew’s death, he wants him to know just what kind of terrible hole has been left in the family. This is a point that the band over and over emphasizes in interviews, that whatever pain they are enduring due to this trial, it is nothing compared to the Nozek family’s loss. It was a difficult scene to watch, especially with the knowledge that with Blythe’s exoneration, no one will ever have answers for Nozek’s family about why their son died that night. This is a wraith that the band makes clear will follow them forever, and it has already affected the way they play their shows—with extremely heightened security and zero tolerance for dangerous shenanigans. Filmmakers did an excellent job of editing their footage, because there was never a moment where Nozek’s death felt exploited or its gravitas betrayed. Unlike many music documentaries, there was a significant lack of overblown glorification that, understandably, occurs on a regular basis. We like our rock stars larger than life and they oblige, but Lamb of God has never been that way, and it was nice to see the truth of that maintained in the telling of this story.
The trial was an extreme opportunity for Blythe to prove to himself and those close to him that he had truly reformed his behavior after getting and staying sober the last few years, and he certainly did that. He proved this genre, while having shitheads a-plenty, is still also populated by people of incredible integrity. For every Vince Neil, there is a Randy Blythe.
While metalheads are no strangers to trouble with the law, there was something different about this trial, and thus the response was swift and ubiquitous. The community could see how dangerous a precedent this would set, to hold musicians responsible for the thousands of fans they play for every year. But more than that, Blythe’s struggle became a surrogate through which the particular struggle of the metalhead could play out. We are often accused, as a community and occasionally individuals, of being responsible for tragedies in unrealistic ways. We are forced to continually justify our culture’s existence. And we are asked to answer for the deep fears of other people. The community rallied together to back Blythe as he fought the charges, to acknowledge that we choose to be here in the pit, that choosing to be here is exactly the point of metal: we want the risk, and are glad for the bands that give us reason to get up and scream. In turn, Blythe and his bandmates showed astonishing strength and solidarity that turned this potential devastation into something different, something inspiring.
As The Palaces Burn is screening in Utah on February 27, 2014 at the following places:
Wynnsong 12- Provo
4925 N. Edgewood Drive
Provo UT 84604
Hollywood Connection 15
3217 South Decker Lake Drive
West Valley City, UT 84119