Film

This is Gwar review: 'A goofy, goopy assault on the senses'

The most disturbingly outlandish schlock-rock band of them all, Gwar have been reframed in this new documentary as a noble artistic enterprise

Beefcake the Mighty, played here by former bassist Jamison Land Photo: Shudder

Cast your mind back to 2018: did you thin Bohemian Rhapsody was a barn-storming bonanza or boilerplate musical biopic bobbins? In any case, the staggering success of that Queen gambit – with $900m global box office and multiple Oscars to boot – means we are now rolling in rock movies.

Already this year we have had Baz Luhrmann’s caffeinated Elvis, the trippy new Bowie documentary Moonage Daydream is due in September, and an authorised Amy Winehouse feature film is on the way. Even This is Spinal Tap is returning for an encore, with a sequel mooted for 2024 to mark the 40th anniversary of the original hard-rocking mock-doc. 

These are all cultural touchstones, indelible icons and musical superstars, rightly celebrated even before the legacy-polishing glow-up of a cinematic tribute. But an underdog story where the act essentially remains a niche concern can be just as compelling. Especially when it is focused on a transgressive troupe of metal-heads in latex fancy dress who hose their fans with mystery fluids. 

This is Gwar recounts the rollicking origin story of the US shlock-rockers perhaps most famous in the UK for being Beavis and Butthead’s favourite band (and truly, what an honour). It is a tale that deserves to be told, not least because Gwar have always claimed to be immortal aliens banished to Earth for creating too much intergalactic havoc.  

The truth is a little more grounded. Taking their name from an imagined war cry – despite the legend, it is not an acronym for God What an Awful Racket – Gwar evolved from the 1980s punk rock scene in Virginia’s traditionally conservative capital Richmond. According to lead singer Dave Brockie, an affable but impish Canadian who performed as demon-faced provocateur Oderus Urungus, a key inspiration was the silliness of Monty Python. The group thrived on boundary-pushing stage antics, combining oversized costumes with buckets of gore to create a splatter-heavy shock-rock revue. Brockie and the rest of the collective – notably special effects impresario Hunter Jackson – took the theatricality of KISS and amped it up into a goofy, goopy assault on the senses.  

This is Gwar front-loads its most recognisable talking heads – including Weird Al Yankovic, Bill & Ted’s Alex Winter and suave comic actor Thomas Lennon – who passionately outline their love for the band’s toilet-humour daftness. After that, it lets the surviving Gwar members narrate the story of an oddball collective who became notorious without ever quite achieving critical or commercial success. 

With so many visual artists in the group, Gwar’s formative years have been well-documented on video, resulting in a treasure trove of archive footage that demonstrates the raw and slightly bewildering energy of their early gigs. Recurring characters in cyber-barbarian dress include axe man Flattus Maximus, mohawked bassist Beefcake the Mighty, and burlesque dancer Slymenstra Hymen, all costumed like monstrous mutant baddies from a Power Rangers episode. 

The 1990s were the decade when Gwar came closest to mainstream success. Their near-the-knuckle humour – specifically a stage stunt involving a spurting codpiece – got Urungus arrested for obscenity in North Carolina. It elevated Gwar to a national talking point on TV and radio news shows hungry for controversial content. Were they outsider punk artists taking a stand against establishment values or lurid symbols of everything morally wrong with the US?  

Their 1992 film Phallus in Wonderland was nominated for a Grammy but the disturbing imagery and near-constant swearing that featured in all of Gwar’s output meant they rarely enjoyed radio or TV play. Instead, they constantly toured, criss-crossing the US with busloads of grungey costumes, silly props and fake blood. They became the ultimate cult band, not least because of their constantly expanding and rotating membership (turns out it is easier to replace guitarists if everyone wears masks). 

Even if you have never consciously listened to a note of their metal-inflected racket, it is easy to become invested in the Gwar saga. There is backstabbing and infighting – civil Gwar, if you like – and a series of unexpected tragedies, including a freak shooting accident and more than one untimely death. The fact that they are still going after three gruelling decades feels like a miracle. For years, I assumed Gwar were a one-note joke band. This is Gwar persuasively reframes them as a noble artistic enterprise. Just one that involves spurting codpieces. 

This is Gwar is available to stream now on Shudder 

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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