Community is the first place an individual gains their identity and sense of self. Community can come from the country you live in, the state, the city, or your home. Community is what starts to shape what you value or, at least, what you should value. In the U.S., for instance, there’s a big push to believe in the American Dream, the notion that each and every one of us is capable of great things if only given the chance. Conversely, since 1933, when Norwegian-Danish author Aksel Sandemose released his novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, the Law of Jante, or Janteloven, has been the standard by which Norwegian culture engages. What is the Law of Jante? Simply put: it’s the notion that none are special and none should strive to be so. On the one hand, it’s an idea that can reduce expectations on life so that any positive moment generates increased happiness; but, on the other, what does it mean for people who long to do something with their lives like artists, musicians, and others who see their trade as a specialty? This conflict serves as the undercurrent for director Randy M. Salo’s documentary Howl of the Underdogs, an exploration of Norwegian metal band Madder Mortem.
Originally created under the name Mystery Tribe by siblings Agnete and BP M. Kirkevaag, the band that would be Madder Mortem officially came to be in 1997 with the record Misty Sleep. Since then, the band members have rotated a bit while the group released new records and gained more notoriety. In celebration of ther 20th anniversary of their first album, Madder Mortem prepares to bring all the previous members together to perform a one-night only event. In the run-up to this, over the course of a year, Salo speaks with the current bandmembers about their lives, their concerns, and the friction between their Norwegian upbringing and their personal desires.
Salo’s approach in Howl strays from the traditional, something which makes sense to a point given the subject matter. This is to say that Howl places a great deal of focus on lead singer Agnete over the other members, using her as the way into the band, as well as the gateway to explore the ideas of Janteloven and how it creates a schism within the respective band members. In order to do examine all of this, Salo makes sure to survey Madder Mortem’s home town of Nord-Odal, Norway, creating the necessary greater context for the very specific focus of Howl. However, it’s a lot to investigate in 77-minutes and very little is presented in a straight line. This requires the audience to lean-in quite a bit as the conversation between whomever is speaking and Salo ends up providing the transition to what follows. After a brief musical intro, Howl actually starts with Salo saying to Agnete that they could pick up where they left off, a statement that’s as much a signal to her as it is to us that we’re going to get background when the film feels like it versus right off the bat. However, the execution of each individual piece, whether by traditional talking head interview, a guided tour, or being shown home videos, photos, and other archived materials, is so engaging that if one is willing to hold on tight, Howl becomes a ride worth taking.
Irrespective of this, Howl remains compelling because of Salo’s intimate approach, resulting in several raw and profound explorations of tough subjects. There’s a documentary’s worth of material alone on the complexity of growing up in a community that strives for the Janteloven-based way of life when your internal desires push you in direct opposition of this. It’s not only Agnete and BP who are partially examined in this way, but we follow drummer Mads Solås as he struggles through his own complex emotions to the point that his experience becomes a critical example of how difficult it is, psychologically, for the members of Madder Mortem to exist as a band given their respective Janteloven influences. This isn’t used as a gateway to traverse their music, though it is touched on a bit in the beginning by Agnete in how she expresses her belief that someone needs to have experienced the emotions that they convey in their music in order for it to be authentic; but, otherwise, the music is a separate component of the exploration of the band’s individual struggles of trying to be good humans, trying to be good bandmates, and figuring out how to exist in conjunction with their upbringing without totally rebelling against it.
What’s less expected and is a central component of Howl is Salo’s running narrative with Agnete and her role as a front woman for the band. Seeing as Howl is a documentary about the band as they set about celebrating their 20th anniversary, a certain amount of looking back on the years and examining choices is expected. What we actually see, in addition, is Agnete discussing, verbally and through actions, her own demons regarding her struggles with eating disorders, how women are viewed as singers in the metalsphere of music, and more. Due to the structure of the documentary as a whole, the audience is thrust straight into Agnete’s perspective of a central issue for her (weight loss) and the surgery she undergoes to address it. It happens so quickly in the doc (the mentioning of it and transitioning over to a shot of her in a medical gown with an IV) that, if not for the appearance of “Day 1” on the shot and all the days after, one might have forgotten that Agnete had the procedure at all. However, what’s interesting about Salo’s approach with presenting this is that the surgery isn’t the important thing, it’s Agnete’s acknowledgement of her choice to undergo said surgery as a means of healing herself as she continues to work.
Intentionally or not, by presenting information like this, Salo almost pits the needs of the one against the needs of the community as it relates to Janteloven’s guiding principles. Is Agnete so much better than anyone that she must have the surgery? Is the work they’re doing so much better than anyone else’s to the extent that Mads should feel he can’t play the drums? If you asked someone outside of that sphere, someone who is a fan of their music (several of whom Salo shows to the audience via interviews), their answers will differ drastically from what Agnete, Mads, or anyone from Nord-Odal might say. As an American late-Generation X/early-Millenial, I’d argue that their individual pursuit for mental health can only make them better at what they want to do. But then, the band members articulate this same notion as a necessity separate from themselves, they just lack the ability to actualize it for themselves. From here there is a touch of heartbreak, but Salo never allows that to linger, bringing us back to the joy that making music brings to Madder Mortem and their fans around the world.
Available on VOD and digital August 16th, 2022.
For more information on the documentary, head to the official Howl of the Underdogs website.
For more information on the band, head to the official Madder Mortem website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.