For over 20 years, Shihad has defined New Zealand rock music. From their roots in Wellington's furious 90s punk metal scene, to the wild Berlin days, the tragic overdose of their manager, the international explosion of 'The General Electric', and the infamous American name-change, 'Shihad: Beautiful Machine' asks- what went wrong? Written by
"Beautiful Machine" had no reason to exist upon release, and less after seeing it; its essentially the story of Wellington, New Zealands most successful post-grunge/radio metal band who made their most successful recordings prior to 2003. Decamping to Melbourne in the nineties, the band released a string of radio singles, and toured the Aussie pub band circuit and further overseas, a tradition that New Zealand musicians have held since the 1970s.
My main issue with the film is that NZ arts funding bodies supplied some $980,000 to produce what is essentially a series of found-video excerpts, home interviews and some in concert clips - much of it about the quality level of a well made student film. Where the money actually went I can't say, but possibly the bands ever-declining recording sales was the main motivator for this NZ music nostalgia flick; fans should be aware of their plans to recently try and sell their live performances as pay-per-view broadcasts to bars, part sponsored by NZ house paint company Resene. (note: a musical act is not a rugby or cricket team, but anyways. . .)
But what about the film's content? Well, back in the mid nineties, Shihad and a group of other popular acts (Supergroove, Headless Chickens and to an extent smaller groups like HDU or the Nixons) were on the warpath in NZ, impressing kids via radio sponsorship or live sets at local college orientation gigs etc. Shihad were originally a high school metal band, based around rich-kid drummer Tom Larkins impressive rhythm chops, with the rest of the band playing along. Frontman Jon Toogoods cartoonish, manic stage energy helped engage an audience often indifferent to local releases in the countries tiny commercial music market.
Ultimately, what happens in reality is not what happens in this documentary; for starters, it should be noted that the bands early alt. metal gigs were surprisingly sharp and self-assured, but later attempts at coercing the bands sound into a radio-friendly singles format made the same strengths weaknesses; their robotic, soulless sound may have suited industrial tinged metal, but sounded like generic radio rock on air years later, maybe in part due to the influence of Warners NZ music manager James Southgate, an ex-pat Brit that likes overproduced, American accented radio bands that people will pay to see in a pub somewhere, but have about as much personality and zest as the plastic bags you use for weekly shopping.
I can't stress enough how annoying Jon Toogood actually is: the frontman of the strident, earnest metal group later came across as a sort of charmless, macho New Zealand jock, annoyingly self assured, almost arrogant.
The films raison d'être is ostensibly that they could have been huge in the US, but the stigma of the 9/11 attacks on US soil was too much of an issue for music managers at the time. NOT TRUE: in reality, dozens (in fact hundreds) of bands were submitting their albums, promo kits and demos to US record labels, trying to be the next "modern rock" band, a kind of macho, heavy-handedly earnest format that culminated in Nickelback, The Calling, Alter Bridge and other bands too vile to mention.
Not that Shihad were a group that started playing to become that format, they started playing in high school circa 1988, and if they'd been documented in the mid-nineties, the nostalgia of seeing the item today would be relevant. As I suggested above, this 2012 release is some kind of cash-in, and one that sells a pretty mediocre retelling of their story to the public.
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