At first glance it’s tempting to call “Truth to Power,” a documentary about the music and activism of System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian, the “Last Dance” of music docs. Impressive archival footage can’t disguise how overly reverential a treatment Garin Hovannisian’s film is. That’s not surprising considering that, like “The Last Dance,” its subject was an instrumental part of its making. Tankian reached out to Hovannisian to initiate the project, and had even scored two of Hovannisian’s previous movies. That cozy relationship has a cost: as with “The Last Dance,” “Truth to Power” is a promotional film, not a work of journalism.
But unlike “The Last Dance,” it doesn’t have an hours-long narrative worth losing yourself in to the point that you begin to forget those critiques. At 79 minutes, “Truth to Power” makes you yearn for a more extensive treatment, because Tankian and his revolutionary band deserve it. What you get instead is a Wikipedia-like blow-by-blow account of key moments in his life: growing up as an Armenian-American kid in LA — the grandson of an Armenian genocide survivor — his realization that music was his passion, how his nu metal band System of a Down exploded to fame by leaning into their Armenian roots and getting political, and a rundown of his artistic projects after the band’s last album in 2005.
That’s all just in the first half. In the second half, Hovannisian lets his storytelling breathe a little more as he begins telling the part of Tankian’s life that clearly means the most to both the rocker and the filmmaker: his campaign to get the U.S. to recognize Turkey’s culpability in the genocide of over one million Armenians during World War I.
Because Turkey has been strategically important to U.S. interests in the Middle East, there’s long been a reluctance to condemn their brutal ethnic cleansing that occurred under the aegis of the regime that preceded the modern Republic of Turkey: the Ottoman Empire. Armenian genocide denial is the norm in Turkey, and the authoritarian government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened the undermining of diplomatic relations with any country that acknowledges it. Some of the home-movie footage Tankian shot himself of his campaign is riveting: especially when he confronts former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (now a convicted felon and acknowledged child molester) in the mid-aughts over his refusal to bring a condemnation motion to the House floor.
Equally compelling is Tankian’s campaign to fight corruption in his homeland itself. In 2015, System of a Down played its first concert in Armenia, and Tankian used the opportunity to inveigh publicly against the corrupt presidency of Serzh Sargsyan. Tankian’s lyrics, from throughout his body of work, have promoted social justice and progressive activism, and they struck a particular chord in Armenia, arguably becoming the musical soundtrack of the democratic movement there. It all came to a head in April 2018 when the Velvet Revolution peacefully toppled Sargsyan’s oligarchic rule and resulted in the election of new prime minister Nikol Pashinyan. This is the point when Hovannisian came onboard to make the film. At the moment Tankian was personally invited by Pashinyan, who cited System of a Down as an inspiration, to visit Armenia and celebrate the new democracy as one of the country’s national heroes.
All of that is riveting. Less riveting is the insistence upon talking-head interviews throughout. It’s cool to see Rick Rubin and Tom Morello show up to add their praise of Tankian, but it’s curious that they don’t actually say more. Rubin spends much of his brief screen time talking about how Tankian sought lyrical inspiration in his library for what became System of a Down’s biggest hit, “Chop Suey!” And Morello doesn’t have much to add other than how electrifying it was to see System perform at the Viper Room for the first time. Where is Michael Moore? He directed System’s music video for “Boom!,” making it an electrifying statement against the drumbeat for the Iraq War. He’s a talking head who would add a little more fire.
Hackneyed methods for conveying inspiration, such as having the text of lyrics fly out toward the viewer or long, loving shots of Tankian writing in a notebook while framed alone by a window of his California home, would be forgivable in a meatier documentary — one that really interrogates why music can be so powerful as a tool of political action. In such a condensed film, though, it seems like what we’re getting is blind hero worship of Tankian rather than a demonstration of art’s ability to be a change agent. Hovannisian opens his film by asking Tankian, “Can music change the world?” A small problem is that you know even when that question’s being asked, the rest of the film will exist to provide an answer of “yes.” A bigger problem is that “Truth to Power,” in straining so hard to show that music can indeed change the world, never illuminates why.
“Truth to Power” is now available to watch in virtual cinemas.