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Metal Messiah

1978, Starring Richard Ward Allen, David Hensen, Liane Hogan and John Paul Young. Directed by Tibor Takács (MM Productions)

A bizarre sci-fi rock opera like little else being produced under the banner of Canadian film at the time, Metal Messiah is about an enigmatic metallic-skinned stranger trying to stop society's self-destructive obsession with rock and roll. Anchored in Toronto's live music scene if the late 1970s, this dystopian parable was the feature film debut of local music impresario and director Tibor Takács. Working with screenwriter Stephen Zoller, Takács' film is a crudely crafted, episodic work that plays out like a glam version of Amos Poe's avant-punk NYC flick The Foreigner (1978), but with even more ambition, attempting to scale to the bombastic rock opera heights of films like Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Tommy (1975).

Unlike many tax shelter films, Metal Messiah wasn't conceived as a quick investment, but as a short-lived 1975 stage play produced by Takács and written by Stephen Zoller, who eventually developed the piece into a film script. Starring David Hensen, frontman of Toronto band Kickback, as the titular figure (after original Messiah Steven Leckie of Canadian punk pioneers The Viletones didn't work out), the low-budget film was shot in the streets and music clubs of Toronto. Combining local rock mythmaking with an experimental filmmaking style, Metal Messiah is an interesting, if not entirely successful work that doesn't really care about making sense, an anti-rock movie that seems unsure about the influence of rock 'n' roll on society at large.

Somewhere in the near future in Anywhere City, Max the Promoter (Cardboard Brains singer John-Paul Young) hires trenchcoat-clad P.I. Philip Chandler (Richard Ward Allen) to assassinate the Messiah (Jensen)--a mysterious, silver-skinned figure trying to deliver a message of freedom from Dionysian rock 'n' roll enslavement that is threatening to destroy the earth. The film weaves in and out of narrative--the first half, shot mostly silently with dubbed narration, follows Chandler as he attempts to track down the Messiah and struggles with the morality of the job he has been paid to do. The film delves into several dark corners of the city, including a junkyard populated by mutants and the hedonistic subterranean disco beneath it, and the Anywhere City Stock Exchange where corrupt businessmen count their money and watch transsexual strippers. Other characters include Anywhere University headmaster General Morgan, a militaristic android, and Violet (Liane Hogan), leader of the Children of Truth religious cult who tries to control the Messiah with drugs and her own indoctrination techniques.

Eventually, Max deceives the Messiah into becoming part of his devilish stable of musical acts, controlling the city's citizens with insidious rock music that promotes drugs, sex and death. The Messiah releases wildly successful rock albums and stages a concert, a 15-minute long David Bowie-esque spectacle with dancing girls, pyrotechnics and dead animals that devolves into an onstage orgy as Max watches approvingly from the wings. Soon after betraying his beliefs, the Messiah is finally crucified on a huge metal cross.

Unusual for a rock opera, Metal Messiah is actually quite critical of the music it also seems to celebrate. On release, Zoller claimed the film was intended as "a warning to the rock generation" about the possible effect of narcissistic imagery and lyrics of pop music on damaged teenagers with nothing to believe in. At the same time, the film is obviously intended as a musical showcase--the fragmented tour through the spiritually bankrupt Anywhere City capped off with the Metal Messiah concert is the most coherent and memorable aspect of the film. Takács had already filmed performances for bands including Toronto when he made the film, shooting Hensen, still in his metallic make-up, running through several tracks with Kickback, miming a robotic style as his stage theatrics are overtaken by a group of nude girls writhing around on the ground.

Just as Zoller's message seems sometimes confused, it's equally hard to get a handle on the characer of the Messiah himself. While obviously a Christ-like figure, he's purposely left vague, an alien(?) with a message of peace and redemption but little to say. Complicating matters is that the film often pushes him into the background to focus on the more interesting Anywhere City citizens and for Zoller to get across his anti-authoritarian satire, criticisms that, ironically, wouldn't be out of place on a '70s rock band lyric sheet of the kinds of bands he decries.

But even if the rest of the film falters somewhat, Hensen and Kickback's performance, shot at the now defunct gay bar/punk venue Club David's, is the main attraction, and the music is pretty good (complimenting  the fascinating atonal synthesizer score by now in-demand composer Mychael Danna, his first credit). However, with the theatrical make-up, glittery outfits and androgynous posturing, it's hard to shake the feeling that Metal Messiah was already a bit out of its time when the film finally wrapped production. Released the same year as the seminal Canadian punk short film The Last Pogo (Colin Brunton's performance film featuring Cardboard Brains and The Viletones, among others, playing at the Horseshoe Tavern), Toronto's youth music scene had changed significantly in the past three years, now more given to the brutal directness of Brunton's work than the aloof posturing of Takács and Zoller's barely disguised sci-fi allegory.

As roughly hewn as it may be, however, Metal Messiah remains a groundbreaking Canadian music film that, free of the changing tastes of the time, still resonates with its apocalyptic imagery. Though Takács wandered between the worlds of music and film for many years, even managing The Viletones at one point, he reunited with Zoller to make the more straight-forward 984: Prisoner of the Future, another sci-fi parable about an anti-government groups fighting against a totalitarian society. But it wasn't until his 1988 horror hit The Gate that Takács achieved real success as a director with a film that, not coincidentally, fully worked the ideas behind Metal Messiah about the potential evil of pop music into a compelling story. 

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