'We Are Twisted F—ing Sister!': IDFA Review

Courtesy of International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam
A raucously riotous rags-to-riches record of rip-roaring rock renegades

Andrew Horn's documentary on the American rockers premiered in a non-competitive sidebar at the Dutch festival

Much like the legendary glam-metal band whose grindingly arduous rise to fame it lovingly chronicles, shock-rock-doc We Are Twisted F—ing Sister! is superficially "controversial" (profanity in the title!), essentially conventional, but very, very, very entertaining. Automatic catnip for fans and rewarding for those previously indifferent to or even hostile towards the veteran Long Island combo, this persuasive paean to sheer bloody-minded persistence flies by over the course of 136 engrossing, often hilarious minutes.

A sure-fire crowdpleaser for film-festivals on the back of well-received world-premiere screenings at Amsterdam's prestigious IDFA, the US-German co-production warrants art-house distribution in those many territories where Twisted Sister retain a loyal cult following. Made with the outfit's approval and extensive on-screen involvement, writer-director-producer Andrew Horn's belated follow-up to The Nomi Song (2004) also has the makings of a lucrative small-screen offering further down the line.

In The Nomi Song — a profile of androgynously operatic underground performer Klaus Nomi — a New Jersey support-slot for raucous Yankee headbangers Twisted Sister was presented as the nadir of the hyper-sophisticated Berlin artiste's bizarre career. By the end of Horn's latest enterprise, however, viewers may wonder if in fact it was Nomi's zenith. Because while they may be nobody's idea of groundbreaking contributors to musical history — none of the songs excerpted are much to write home about — Twisted Sister's full-blooded, full-throttle commitment to old-fashioned show-biz principles, to giving their countless audiences one hell of a good time, is utterly and admirably unwavering.

Horn's masterstroke is to resist the urge to distil four decades of history into a single film, instead concentrating almost entirely on the 1972-82 period during which Twisted Sister gradually emerged as the unchallenged kings of the "Long Island bar scene" then started patiently knocking on the door of national and international fame. Eschewing the hip but tiny Manhattan clubs, the band instead played the less fashionable but much bigger (and thus enormously more lucrative) venues around the tri-State area, amassing a huge following across suburban New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

A large part of their appeal lay in the larger-than-life flamboyance of Dee Snider, who only joined the fray around 1976 — but who, as we see from grainy contemporary video-footage, instantly established himself as an obviously great front-man and terrific vocalist. A self-confessed "rube" and "dork", Snider garnered much attention for his trash-transvestite stage-garb, ultra-confrontational punker-than-punk approach and spectacularly garish make-up.

Anyone coming to We Are Twisted F—ing Sister! expecting lurid Spinal Tap-esque tales of drink-fueled, drug-crazed heavy-metal excess is, however, in for a major surprise. Both Snider and the band's founding member, guitarist Jay Jay French, were "straight edge" avant la lettre, assiduously eschewing both alcoholic and narcotic stimulation. This perhaps explains the duo's Stakhanovite work-rate and ultra-professional commitment to their touring craft, taking their shtick-punctuated show on the road most nights in the week and selling out large, prestigious venues in the late seventies without the benefit of airplay or a record-deal.

It's the pursuit of the latter which provides We Are Twisted F—ing Sister! with a solid narrative spine, as misfortune piles upon calamity in what seems like a vain pursuit of major-label interest. Not for the first or last time, Twisted Sister were at a crucial stage prophets without honor in their own country, relying on encouragement and interest from the United Kingdom at a time when the big Stateside players wouldn't give them the time of day.

Assembling a slick, professional package with the assistance of two editors, Horn sticks to the tried-and-tested formula of talking-heads interviewees and archival footage. And he strikes gold on both fronts. The video clips are boisterously energetic, while the now middle-aged Snider and French are articulate and genial, the pair boasting a lively and detailed recall of their 1970s exploits. Various managers, club-owners and fans provide wider background — one devotee chats happily away in a nightclub toilet — and We Are Twisted F—ing Sister! only benefits from the fact that Horn is clearly an interested, curious observer rather than any kind of obsessive aficionado incapable of obtaining proper distance from his material.

Production company: Andrew Horn Filmproduktion
Director / Screenwriter / Producer: Andrew Horn
Cinematographer: Mark Daniels
Editors: Silke Botsch, Erik Schefter
Sales: Andrew Horn Filmproduktion, Berlin

No Rating, 136 minutes

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