‘Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis’: Film Review | Palm Springs 2017
For his second documentary feature, Colin Hanks profiles Eagles of Death Metal, the American band whose Paris concert was interrupted by a deadly terrorist attack, as they prepare to return to the French capital.
As he showed in All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, Colin Hanks has a feel for American pop culture and fandom, and a knack for connecting with his interview subjects. In the case of his new film, the subjects are also friends of his: the Southern California hard rock act who performed at the premiere for his first doc — and whose November 2015 show at the Bataclan theater in Paris was interrupted by three heavily armed Islamic State militants who left 90 people dead and hundreds wounded.
You don’t have to be a follower of Eagles of Death Metal, or even glancingly familiar with their music, to appreciate the emotional power of Hanks’ deeply felt film, Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends). Though the music is the connective tissue for the band and its ardent followers, it’s not the driving force of this chronicle, whose true focus is the life-shaping friendship between the group’s founders, and how the bond between the musicians and their fans was a source of strength for all of them in the aftermath.
Set for a mid-February bow on HBO, the documentary had its world premiere at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The desert city is not far from where band founders Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme met as tweens, and where a key incident that they both recount in the film, involving the towering Homme’s rescue of Hughes from bullies, presages another kind of emotional rescue decades later, in far more dire circumstances.
The doc revolves around separate interviews with Hughes (aka Boots Electric) and Homme (aka Baby Duck) as the band plans a February 2016 show in Paris, its first headlining performance there since the attacks. Cinematographer Boyd Hobbs, who delivers nimble, intimate work throughout the pic, frames the two men very differently. Homme appears against a backdrop of glittering city lights, a fitting complement to his expansive, poetic and sometimes terrifically funny insights about music and life. The middle-distance framing makes sense, too, because Homme wasn’t at the Bataclan show; despite his role as EODM co-founder, he’s part of a rotating lineup so that he can pursue his other project, Queens of the Stone Age.
By contrast, Hobbs captures Hughes, EODM’s one constant, in tight close-up. He’s no less articulate or humorous than Homme, no less attuned to the big picture. But as he anticipates the band’s return to Paris, he’s profoundly shaken, speaking tearfully from pain and uncertainty over whether rock ’n’ roll — which for him means freedom, joy, “the rooster’s walk” — will ever again be the “fun machine” that is his life’s purpose.
Devoting the first third of the doc to the band’s backstory proves especially effective. It would be an absorbing story under any circumstances, given Hughes and Homme’s strong personalities and the particular desert culture that formed them, with its growth-center composite of the working-class and the well-heeled, conservative politics and artists' nonconformity. But given the crucible of events at the Bataclan, the love between Hughes and Homme takes on an urgency that’s epitomized in several scenes before the triumphant February concert at the Olympia. Homme has made the transatlantic trip just days after the birth of his son in order to perform with Hughes, who runs into his arms when he first sees him at the venue.
U2’s The Edge and Bono, who have become almost comically omnipresent in music videos of recent vintage, appear here not just to praise EODM’s swagger and swing, but because they helped to pull Hughes & Co. out of their shock and back onstage, inviting the band to perform with them in Paris a mere three weeks after the attacks.
Hanks also interviews a few French fans, diehards who were at the Bataclan show and who greet the Olympia concert three months later as nothing less than a necessity: “We had to finish that gig,” one of the survivors says. Hughes would call her a friend, not a fan; for him and his bandmates, for good and for bad, they and their audience are in it together. “We’re all rock ’n’ rollers,” he says. The director includes no graphic footage of the destruction at the Bataclan, but harrowing images arise nonetheless in the recollections of the band and members of the audience: the sounds, the blood, the fear, the musicians' wait for the shooters to reload their automatic weapons so that they might run for their lives. Looking for his girlfriend, Hughes came face-to-face with one of the gunmen and by sheer happenstance avoided being shot.
There’s undeniable psychic damage and, however irrational, survivor’s guilt. Focusing on the sense of responsibility that Hughes feels toward his French fans — “a holy charge,” he calls it — Hanks doesn’t delve into the controversy that arose over some of his post-Bataclan comments. But in a French TV interview that is one of the film’s most intense sequences, Hughes delves briefly, and unfashionably, into the political ramifications of the slaughter. More tellingly, he comes close to a panic attack when he first sits down before the television cameras. The politics can be debated endlessly, but one conclusion that Hughes draws from his firsthand experience is beyond question. He's a man who’s been to hell and is still working his way back, and when he recalls the carnage he witnessed, he says definitively, “It’s not like it is in the movies.”
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
Production companies: Live Nation Productions, Company Name
With: Jesse Hughes, Josh Homme, Dave Catching, Matt McJunkins, The Edge, Bono, Julian Dorio, Brian O’Connor, Eden Galindo
Director: Colin Hanks
Producers: Sean Stuart, Heather Parry
Executive producers: Michael Rapino
Director of photography: Boyd Hobbs
Editor: Darrin Roberts
Composer: Alain Johannes
Not rated, 84 minutes