By Ben Apatoff
Until the Light Takes Us, a new documentary chronicling black metal-related crimes in Norway in the early '90s, tells a fascinating story. It's a story that deserves to be told better, and it has been, most notably in authors Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind's must-read Lords of Chaos. Unlike The Story of Anvil or Some Kind of Monster, Until the Light Takes Us won't appeal to anyone who isn't already invested in the music, and even fans might find it chore to get through.
Metal devotees know the story. Black metal music and culture hits Nordic countries in the '80s, church burnings run rampant in Norway, MAYHEM vocalist DEAD eats a self-inflicted bullet and BURZUM founder VARG VIKERNES is sent to prison for stabbing Mayhem guitarist EURONYMOUS enough times for the word "murder" to seem like an insufficient description. Any one of those acts has enough fodder for a great movie, but somehow it gets lost in the hands of filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell.
Until the Light Takes Us feels like it was randomly sequenced, with interviews randomly spliced between segments in a way that usually disrupts the film's narrative structure. There's precious little black metal music in the movie, but there's time for a mediocre art show and a pointless appearance by indie filmmaker Harmony Korine. Also, I'm all for low-budget, independent filmmaking, but Until the Light Takes Us is distractingly lo-fi, with poor lighting and a shaky camera that often recall The Blair Witch Project. Perhaps Aites and Ewell were trying to emulate Varg Vikernes, who, in one of the film's more interesting segments, discusses his methods for purposely engineering Burzum records to sound muddy.
Most of the interviews are with FENRIZ of DARKTHRONE, an eccentric but amiable musician who dutifully retells stories from the early '90s without making any revelations. His footage would be ideal for a Darkthrone DVD, but not for a supposedly definitive movie on Norwegian black metal. Nowhere in interviews with a greasepaint-less IMMORTAL or shots of a Kerrang! issue featuring EMPEROR do we get a sense of why these bands are important. Maybe that wasn't the filmmakers' aim, but in that case they should've made their goals clearer.
Of course there is the famous clip of Varg Vikernes smiling while his sentence is being read, and he sits down with the film directors for some intriguing (if not revelatory) interviews. He presents an intriguing blend of insight and stupidity, eloquently articulating his views on music and religion while sounding idiotic when explaining his motives for telling the press that he'd burned churches. He's clearly guilty of the oppression that he claims to detest about Christianity, and he sounds utterly loony when recanting Euronymous' murder. The film does not make a convincing case for his recent release form prison.
If anything, the interviews remind us that in the right hands, this could have been a great movie. Yes, I was caught up in it. But had Burzum sounded like JOHN MAYER, I would've been counting minutes on my watch.
Rating: 2 Count Grishnackhs out of 5
Until the Light Takes Us opens December 4 in NYC and December 11 in LA.