By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 26, 2014 at 9:01AM
Don Argott's 2011 documentary profiled a heavy metal addict, Pentagram vocalist Bobby Liebling, just as he hit rock bottom and decided to fight for a comeback. In "As the Palaces Burn," Argott follows another famous metalhead, Lamb of God's growling songster Randy Blythe, who has already put his hard drinking days behind him, but remains haunted by them. At first simply a look at the band's recent tour, the movie blossoms into a gripping legal tale when Blythe faces unexpected murder charges. Whereas "Last Days Here" explored the self-destructive power of stardom, "As the Palaces Burn" achieves an even greater impact by universalizing that theme and exposing the challenges that persist even when it seems like the worst is over. Like the music at its center, "As the Palaces Burn" foregrounds deep-seated anguish and finds tenderness at its core.
At first, "As the Palaces Burn" successfully demystifies clichés surrounding heavy metal subculture by finding the band hard at work in preparation for touring with its 2012 "Resolution" album. Behind the explosive riffs and growls that define their sound, the group has entered middle age in relatively low key fashion. There's no better image to punctuate this observation than bearded guitarist Mark Morton shooting hoops with his toddler and working the grill, although drummer Chris Adler shares a similarly gentle moment with his own young child. Blythe himself, compared to earlier tour footage that shows him stumbling around in a drunken stupor, has grown increasingly erudite in the wake of giving up the bottle. The juxtaposition between Lamb of God's anarchic music and soft-spoken amiability is both comical and well-defined, setting the stage for an exploration of metal's cathartic power for its countless fans.
During the initial half hour, Argott uses the tour as a backdrop for detailing the band's international appeal, particularly its impact on alienated youth. The series of mini-profiles are straightforward but entirely watchable even if you don't care for assaultive noise rock: In Colombia, Argott finds a "part time cab driver, full-time metalhead" who looks to the band as his way of moving beyond the trail of corruption and death that has marred his family history; in India, the filmmaker finds a female heavy metal vocalist for whom the music provides an escape from her country's restrictive social norms. Collectively, these sequences smartly make the case that metal, as one band member put it, provides "an organic outlet to get all those fucking demons out."
The celebratory spirit provides enough enthusiasm to sustain about a third of the movie, which is all the space it takes up. Around the 30 minute mark, the movie's entire focus shifts when the band gets stopped on the runway by officials in the Czech Republic and Blythe gets taken into custody. Once there, he's accused of playing a role in the death of a teen fan from three years earlier injured during a stage diving incident that none of the band members can recall. Stuck behind bars in a foreign land, Blythe finds himself fighting charges that could put him behind bars for years.
Maybe Argott was just in the right place at the right time, but "As the Palaces Burn" hardly downplays the significance of this development, instead nimbly transforming into a courtroom drama that forces the singer to literally confront his former self. Argott's camera captures remarkable back-room conversations between Blythe and his legal council as they scrutinize videos from the show and prep for a jury-free trial where seemingly anything could go awry. With the shift from conventional rock doc into something more sophisticated, "As the Palaces Burn" remains enthralling all the way through.
Even then, the band's future remains at the center of the proceedings. Argott shows Larry Mazer, Lamb of God's gruff manager (who initially commissioned Argott to make a traditional movie about the band's popularity) yelling into the phone about the business ramifications of Blythe's situation, while the group's extensive community (including big-hitters like Slash) jumps to his defense. As pressure mounts for Blythe's release, the network of fandom established in the first half of the movie becomes a key factor in its second.
The details of the ensuing trial are fascinating, even as they come at the expense of certain personal aspects involving its impact on Blythe's family, his decision to return to face trial after he's released on bail, and his experience behind bars. But the stakes of his conundrum build to a deservedly moving conclusion. No matter how many fans have been saved by Lamb of God's music, "As the Palace Burns" leaves no doubt that the one person whom the band has helped most of all is its valiant frontman.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? SpectiCast will release the movie in a series of special engagements starting Thursday ahead of its DVD/VOD release, when fans of the band are likely to welcome it. Whether non-fans pay attention is uncertain. A full list of theaters playing the film is available here.
A version of this review originally ran during the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam.