THE EL DUCE TAPES (2019)

the el duce tapes (2019)
Documentary based on footage from the 1990s of briefly notorious shock rock band The Mentors and its lead singer, El Duce.
3 out of 5 stars

The Mentors weren’t your dad’s shock rock band. Long gone were the days of Alice Cooper singing about necrophiliac romance and Gene Simmons wearing cat makeup and spitting fire. It’s 1985, the height of the Reagan years, and the Mentors )led by a pudgy bald man in an executioner’s hood known only as El Duce) had just released their debut album, featuring such timeless classics as “Golden Shower” and “My Erection is Over.” 12 years of tasteless punk rock antics later and El Duce died abruptly in the most appropriately gruesome way imaginable: decapitated by a speeding freight train while drunk out of his mind. The band’s legacy, and by extension El Duce’s legacy, is preserved almost solely in documentary footage by General Hospital actor and devoted Mentors fan Ryan Sexton, footage that Rodney Ascher and David Lawrence have now unearthed and compiled into what aspires to be the shock rock doc to end all shock rock docs, The El Duce Tapes.

The footage, largely filmed between 1990 and 1991, certainly speaks for itself. The documentary opens with a hooded El Duce onstage yelling “everybody who likes to rape women, say ‘sieg heil!’” He’s promptly answered by a chorus of sieg heils from the crowd, which he greets with a Nazi salute—rape jokes and tongue-in-cheek white supremacy being two running motifs throughout the footage. El Duce, an outspoken alcoholic who’s rarely seen in the film without a malt liquor in hand, hardly traffics in subtlety in his music or his lifestyle, and the filmmakers don’t make a big effort to make him come across as likeable. Even when he’s giving one-on-one interviews with Ryan with no audience but the camera, he’s farting and binge-drinking and talking about his preferred procedure for date rape. It’s all in the name of the satire (for all the button-pushing, this man-child couldn’t hurt a fly), but knowing that it’s a performance doesn’t make him much more endearing when he’s joking to a woman on Jerry Springer that she was “probably asking for it” when she was raped at the age of 12.

The band’s crude ‘are-you-triggered-yet?’ gimmick makes some of the more sober revelations all the more surprising. When Duce talks about how his father, who designed napalm bombs used in the Vietnam war, was physically abusive to him and his siblings, he drops the act for just a split-second long enough to see the man beneath the hood. El Duce’s true personal politics are hard to discern because he rarely breaks character. He speaks in an interview about not wanting to play at an Aryan Nation rally that extended an invitation to The Mentors because he has black friends and doesn’t agree with what they represent, then immediately segues into saying that if he were the president he’d build a border wall and have televised firing squads for Mexican immigrants every evening.

Perhaps even more shocking than El Duce’s traumatic past and the thin line between his personality and stage persona is the revelation that he doesn’t listen to punk: their taste lies almost exclusively in jazz and jazz fusion. El Duce talks about his love of Herb Alpert and Chick Corea records, and his bandmates wax poetic over how much of a drum prodigy he was when he was younger. The image painted by Sexton’s footage is of a man who could’ve been a happy, successful musician but who was broken by a painful childhood and a whole lot of deeply ingrained self-loathing that came with it. In his drunker moments in the interviews, he confesses that he hates himself and his lifestyle of perpetual couch-surfing makes him a nervous wreck, which doesn’t come as a big surprise given the few moments of sober vulnerability that come through.

Co-directors Rodney Ascher and David Lawrence, for the most part, know better than to mess with the goldmine of video footage that Ryan Sexton placed in their lap, and that’s where their documentary shines. The few moments of creative liberty on their part are largely unobtrusive, in particular cutting to archival clips from older films while El Duce and his bandmates talk about their lives and the band as well as splicing in an original score by the band Nilbog. It’s generous to even call Ascher and Lawrence directors so much as editors who strung this footage together in a coherent and presentable way, with the occasional VHS title card dividing it up. Towards the end, though, they start to make some connections in the material that maybe aren’t entirely there, splicing in clips of South Park, Bill Maher interviewing Milo Yiannopoulos, and the music video for Blurred Lines, as if to say “this is the legacy that an unknown alcoholic musician making rape jokes had on American culture.”

The reality is, unfortunately, that he probably had little impact on the broader cultural scene beyond being a raunchy footnote in the history of punk, and that’s perfectly all right. In fact, it’s probably what El Duce himself would have wanted—to be a cult figure somewhere between GG Allin and Gene Simmons, memorialised in an obscure Kurt Cobain documentary and the 1985 PMRC music censorship hearings. He’s remembered exactly as he lived: a champion of politically incorrect shock rock for the initiated and a paragon of rock n’ roll’s satanic, misogynistic underbelly for parents and prudes everywhere.

USA | 2019 | 104 MINUTES | 1.50:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider arrow video
Click image to buy through our Amazon affiliate link

Limited Edition Blu-ray Special Features:

  • High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation. Aside from the occasional cutaways to other films and TV shows, the entire documentary is made up of archival footage shot on a camcorder, so the HD visual quality is pretty inconsequential. Then again, video quality is far from the draw for a movie like this.
  • Brand new audio commentary with The El Duce Tapes crew. It feels almost redundant to listen to the audio commentary on a documentary, but there are some worthwhile discussions between the crew here. They bring up the central question of the film at one point, which is the vagueness of what is performance and what’s not for El Duce, and how, unlike him, other shock rock bands like GWAR turn off their personas when they take off the costume.
  • ‘The Ryan Sexton Tapes’—34-minute illustrated audio conversation between Ryan Sexton and producer Tim Kirk about the shooting of the original VHS footage. “Illustrated audio conversation” is just code for a phone conversation overlaid with images that complement what Sexton and his interviewer Tim Kirk are discussing at any given moment. It’s interesting to hear some of the backstory behind how Sexton discovered this band and became devoted to documenting their increasingly erratic live shows, although it’s naturally a lot more thrilling to let the footage speak for itself and see these freaks in action.
  • ‘The Nilbog Tapes’—Video of the band recording the original score for the film. The score by Nilbog is surprisingly pretty great, and certainly captures the spirit of The Mentors without invoking the less than savory lyrics, and their commentary on its production is pretty insightful divorced entirely from the content of the documentary.
  • ‘More El Duce Tapes’—A free-standing alternate assembly of unused material, sort of a sideways sequel. It doesn’t really add a whole lot to the understanding of the band to see the footage left on the cutting room floor—after all, there isn’t really much nuance to them in the first place—but it’s certainly fun to watch even more clips of the band and their fans.
  • ‘Tape 2: Hollywood Reservoir’—A piece of raw tape providing a peek behind the scenes of the process of shooting the footage and a candid document of El Duce and Ryan’s rapport. Like some of the other special features here, it feels a little redundant as a behind-the-scenes look on a behind-the-scenes documentary, but there’s something oddly sweet in this one that shows El Duce let down his guard more than usual.
  • ‘El Duce Stories’—A humorous cut-up of a few of El Duce’s famously long aimless stories into one completely incomprehensible and endless word salad. Like the unused footage, this is mostly just a curiosity for diehard fans of El Duce’s brand of anarchic, sophomorish humor. For El Duce heads, though, there’s a lot here to get a laugh out of.
  • ‘Return to Rape Rock Mountain’—A brand new interview with Steve Broy, aka Dr. Heathen Scum of The Mentors. Steve Broy is the only coherent (read: sober) talking head in the film, so hearing him speak provides a nice balance to all the sloppy provocateur antics of El Duce.
  • Reality Check presents the all-female El Duce tribute band The Womentors. Why anyone would be interested in former a Mentors tribute band, especially a group of all women, is beyond me, but as far as special features on a documentary go this is a lot of fun.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by John Pearson and reverse art by Benjamin Marra.
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing by Manish Agarwal.
frame rated divider

Cast & Crew

directors: Rodney Ascher, David Lawrence & Ryan Sexton.
starring: Steve Broy, Eric Carlson, El Duce, Gwar, Bill Maher, Jerry Springer, Robin Thicke & Milo Yiannopoulos (archive footage).

More from Joseph Shapiro
DEADLY MANOR (1990)
A group of teenagers take refuge in an old, deserted mansion... only...
Read More