Sep 28, 2019

24FPS @ LFF 2019: The El Duce Tapes

This film is playing at the London Film Festival. This review is from a viewing on the online press library. The festival runs from October 2nd-13th. You'll find a link to tickets at the end of this post. At time of writing, tickets are still available for both of its screenings.

The El Duce Tapes
Dir: Rodney Ascher / David Lawrence / Ryan Sexton
Composed of documentary and interview footage taken in the early 1990s by Ryan Sexton as he followed extreme punk band The Mentors and their lead singer El Duce, this documentary takes an unflinching look at a man who seems always to have wanted to kick against societal norms. The punk scene has never been my thing, and The Mentors, with their muddy sound and often brutally misogynistic lyrics, aren’t the band to change that but that’s not what makes The El Duce Tapes an interesting film.

Often I’ll say that a film being unsure what it wants to be is a fundamental problem, but in this case it’s perhaps the most interesting aspect of the way that co-directors Rodney Ascher and David Lawrence have chosen to assemble Sexton’s footage (which is clearly out of order). Is it a portrait of a truly disgusting human? Is it about a satirical enacting trolling the world in the pre-internet age? Is it about the sad decline of a man who hid his insecurities beneath extremity in all things? The answer is that it’s probably all of those things, and all the more interesting for that.

El Duce’s real name was Eldon Hoke and apparently he started out as a troubled kid who played the drums to get his aggression out, initially interested in playing jazz fusion music with his high school friend Steve Broy, who became the bassist for The Mentors, under the stage name Dr Heathen Scum. By the time Ryan Sexton began filming him, Hoke was decribing his music as ‘rape rock’, playing in dive bars and small clubs, so drunk that his previously impressive drumming skills would often desert him on stage. El Duce sometimes seems like a persona; a monster that Hoke has created to say the most offensive things his mind can vomit up. Some of that is contained in songs like Four F Club, Free Fix For a Fuck and Golden Showers, extracts of which were read at the congressional that helped lead to the introduction of the Parental Advisory sticker. 

That could be passed off as a pose, but it’s tough to reconcile that with interview footage where Hoke talks about being fine with non-violent rape, gives Nazi salutes and proposes a border plan that starts off sounding like Trumps border wall, then devolves into his voters’ violent wet dream. We never see enough of a gap between this Hoke and whatever ‘real’ person he’s masking to be entirely comfortable with the idea, advanced by the much more outwardly sober and thoughtful Broy, that his friend is purely putting on an act to find an audience for his music.

The part of the film that spends most of its time allowing El Duce to perform, onstage and off, can get wearing. The barrage of disgusting lyrics and hateful bile spilled in the interviews is only slightly leavened by Hoke’s more reflective moments and Broy’s more analytical approach. It’s a surprise, then, that the film does turn inward in its third act. I may not ever have wanted to hang out with Eldon Hoke, but watching his decline as he lurches ever further into the extremes of alcoholism is still sad on a human level. Most depressing are extracts from a videotape made a few years after Sexton stopped filming El Duce, which see Hoke completely out of it at a party, being dragged out of the room, half naked, by his friends. Obviously, the story doesn’t have a happy ending.

What begins looking like a compendium of ugly moments ends up being a surprisingly penetrating and often sad document of a troubled life. It always feels like there’s more to be found out, but Hoke’s walls are too solid, whether it’s consciously a character or not, he’s too hidden behind El Duce for us to ever really know him.

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