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In case you never went to college, read J.R.R. Tolkien as a kid or swore off art-house cash-cow "cult classics" after a bad experience with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (never, ever admit you're a virgin), know thee that Heavy Metal is an animated sci-fi/fantasy/soft-porn trip flick that had its first run in 1981.
I was only 10 then, and efforts to talk my parents into taking me to an R-rated cartoon were about as successful as the time I tried to convince them that, in fact, an Iron Maiden concert would be a fine way to celebrate their anniversary (I stayed home with the sitter).
And so I forgot about Heavy Metal until my first year of higher education, where I found it in Heavy Rotation on various campus midnight-movie series, along with Pink Floyd: The Wall, The Song Remains the Same, Koyaanisqatsi and (all, hail) Star Wars.
By the time I finally saw the Ivan Reitman-produced project in the fall of '89, the animation was cut-rate compared to the tsunami of retina-searing work that had recently come crashing across the Pacific from Japan, starting with Akira in 1988. Still--call me a geek, I can take it--Heavy Metal was a positive cinema experience. Maybe it was the blueberry/sinsemilla muffins at the concession stand. Maybe it was the renowned opening sequence--a '60 Corvette turned shuttle craft being birthed from the belly of a mother ship and rocketing planet side. Or maybe it was the game of "Name That RipOff" a friend and I made up as the movie went along (i.e., "Star Wars cantina scene--five points").
It certainly wasn't all the naked, animated fantasy babes--breasts that big that point up send me ducking for cover.
Heavy Metal's pop cachet lies in its campy cheesiness. Try to take it seriously and you'll only frustrate yourself. Sure, it's stupid to have two pink, warty cartoon aliens with trunks snort up a vat of "Tazarian Nyborg" and do a Cheech and Chong skit--"Wow, man, good Nyborg"--but it's also worth a giggle.
So's the soundtrack. You won't find a better array of wonderfully bad pre-Mstley CrYe pop hard rock than the Heavy Metal soundtrack. We're talking Blue Öyster Cult here. We're talking Nazareth, Sammy Hagar, and Black Sabbath. And we're talking--wait a minute, what the hell is this ... Devo?
Yes, Devo. Performing a cover of Lee Dorsey's 1966 R&B hit "Working in a Coal Mine," no less. The song--originally an outtake from the band's 1981 album New Traditionalists--is featured in the aforementioned Star Wars cantina-scene episode, in which the band of mutants onstage bears a suspicious resemblance to a certain New Wave combo.
Devo main-mouth Mark Mothersbaugh explains the anomaly in a phone interview from "Mutato Muzika," his multimedia studio in Los Angeles: "It turned out that some of the animators were Devo fans and really pushed for us to have a song in the film," he says. "We knew that the music was mainly going to be Sabbath and Hagar, which we thought would sell well, and we saw it as a chance to take a free ride at their expense."
The joke was on Devo, however. "Coal Mine" broke the Top 20 and was credited with pushing sales of the soundtrack past the million mark. "We wound up making all this money for the same bands we thought would be making it for us," says Mothersbaugh. "We set out to make our participation a subversive action and it backfired."
Mothersbaugh says he saw Heavy Metal when it first came out--"It was fine for what it was. It has a good sense of humor, and some of the sequences were on the edge at the time." But he doesn't plan to make a screening of the ongoing revival, which boasts brand-new prints and a digitally remastered soundtrack.
"Heavy Metal is obviously a little out of its league now," he says. "But it served its purpose. It sort of prepared people's eyes and brains for Japanese anime, and made a good introduction for the idea that cartoons are not just for Saturday mornings."
Rereleased prints of Heavy Metal are currently being showcased in 40 cities across the U.S. and Canada. (In the Valley, Heavy Metal is screening at Harkins Centerpoint 11, Mill and University in Tempe; call 966-6655 for showtimes).--David Holthouse