40 Years Ago: ‘Heavy Metal’ Subverts Every Animated Movie Rule
Like its namesake magazine, the Heavy Metal movie was a strangely alluring mix of comic science fiction and dark erotica, underground fantasy and Arthurian campiness.
Both concepts were prone to obvious plot holes, poor juxtapositions and clumsy horniness. But you also couldn't take your eyes off of it.
The idea for director Gerald Potterton's film, which arrived on Aug. 7, 1981, was to interlock a series of loosely connected vignettes in order to mimic the parent publication's well-established vibe. They also used old-school rotoscoping techniques to give the movie a timeless feel.
"When the producer Ivan Reitman and I first met, I knew about the Heavy Metal magazine," Potterton told Animation World Network in 2015. "I liked the drawings – some of the stuff. A lot of it was crap, but there was some good drawing. You know, Moebius and people like that. I loved that stuff, but I couldn't see doing a 90-minute film just in one style. I really liked the idea of, like, five or six stories, different stuff, just like in the magazine. That's what makes it work."
Reitman assembled a team of smart up-and-coming voice talent, including SCTV castmates Harold Ramis, John Candy, Joe Flaherty and Eugene Levy. The soundtrack was also dotted with huge stars, including Black Sabbath, former Eagles guitarist Don Felder, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick and others.
"I'm mostly a comedy buff," Reitman told the Los Angeles Times in 1996, "but I thought there would be a good film in it. I do like science fiction, and I loved the illustrations and some of the stories. They were different from anything I had ever seen. The idea was to create an animated film for an older audience."
In keeping, the R-rated film pushed boundaries well past anything the typical Disney fan could possibly accept – or maybe even imagine.
"The director called me in to take a look at the film first," Felder later told the Tribune News Service. "I had no idea what to expect. It was, I initially thought, this bizarre, animated adult movie aimed at stoners. I figured it would either be a huge hit or a huge flop, but I'll roll the dice."
Watch a Trailer for 'Heavy Metal'
Potterton actually had plenty of takers: The "Harry Canyon" segment, based on an Moebius item from the magazine titled "The Long Tomorrow," features songs by Blue Oyster Cult ("Veteran of the Psychic Wars"), Stevie Nicks ("Blue Lamp"), Donald Fagen ("True Companion") and Journey ("Open Arms"). Blue Oyster Cult wrote and recorded another original for the film titled "Vengeance (The Pact)," but the producers felt it too closely summarized the movie's "Taarna" chapter.
Cheap Trick's "Reach Out" was also included on the "Captain Sternn" vignette, while "B-17" – with a zombie-fied script by Dan O'Bannon, who wrote 1979's Alien – featured Felder's "Heavy Metal (Takin' a Ride)," an Eagles reunion of sorts that just missed the Top 40. "So Beautiful & So Dangerous" again showcased Cheap Trick ("I Must Be Dreamin'"), as well as Grand Funk Railroad ("Queen Bee"), Nazareth ("Crazy? [A Suitable Case for Treatment]") and Sammy Hagar (with another song titled "Heavy Metal"). Devo's cover "Working in the Coal Mine" arrived during the closing credits.
The thin thread linking all of this together was called the Loc-Nar, a mysterious evil orb that seems to have a hand in every ongoing conflict – while also somehow serving as the movie's narrator. It's complicated. Still, the film, in fact, made money.
Critics understandably pounced, however, since Heavy Metal never really coalesced into a narrative whole. There were a variety of reasons: First, the anthology was created by tandem creative teams, leading to obvious issues with continuity. (Potterton was reportedly coordinating with more than 1,000 artists, animators and technicians across 17 countries, long before Zoom.) Then the studio began fiddling with deadlines, hoping for a summer premiere.
"We had Columbia Pictures saying, 'We've got to have this thing by July 1981 or forget it. We might pull out!'" Potterton told Animation World Network. "So you come up against those sorts of things. Some of it is quite crude. There are some rough bits."
The rushed team never got a chance to rotoscope an exploding house near the end of the film, after its release date was carelessly moved up from the fall. It's the only non-animated sequence, and a perhaps too-easy conclusion meant to echo Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher.
"Everything blows up when the house blows up, including the evil," Potterton added. "There obviously will be more wars – we suggest that – but we wanted to uplift it a bit at the end. There are so many films now where there is no happiness at all. It's just death and destruction, A to B."
Watch a Scene From 'Heavy Metal'
All of those songs gave Heavy Metal a certain classic-rock gravitas, but they also doomed the movie to cult status for years. Columbia struggled to secure needed clearances, creating a lengthy delay for home-video release. That led to widespread bootlegging from cable TV broadcasts. These knockoff versions of Heavy Metal were a staple at comic book shops, hometown record stores and related conventions for decades.
As the years went by, the frustrated Reitman could only take a philosophical approach: "It's something of an honor, I suppose," he told The New York Times.
The soundtrack, which shot to No. 12 in 1981, wasn't reissued on CD until 1995. In the meantime, fans had to seek out the music wherever they could. Some songs ended up as scratched up singles in the cutout bin, while a few found official release elsewhere.
Black Sabbath contributed both "E5150" and "The Mob Rules" for "Taarna," which also features Devo's "Through Being Cool," the first of their two soundtrack songs. "E5150" and "Through Being Cool" were left off the soundtrack but found a home on Devo's New Traditionalists and Sabbath's Mob Rules, respectively. "Vengeance (The Pact)" and "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" both ended up on Blue Oyster Cult's Fire of Unknown Origin.
The film finally appeared on video-store shelves in 1996, after the new owner of Heavy Metal magazine belatedly reached a settlement with the copyright holders of the music.
"Heavy Metal captures a juncture in the growth of the human imagination," script cowriter Len Blum told the Los Angeles Times back then. "Music was changing, it was getting less pretty, and the fantasies were getting more vivid. It's up to the young audience of today to see how we did."
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