Photo courtesy of Until the Light Productions
Making a documentary is a delicate balancing act, and the inexperience of first-time filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell is palpable as they attempt the definitive black metal doc. The story of Norway’s fratricidal, arson-happy music scene is well known to some, and Aites and Ewell were wise to go right to the source, relocating to Oslo and securing unprecedented access to the genre’s major players. They decided to let their subjects do the talking, weaving the harrowing story through accented anecdotes and cobbled-together footage, avoiding heavy-handed voiceover. For veteran directors, this might well have been the right choice, but Until the Light Takes Us is frustratingly uneven, abdicating the responsibility of theme and narrative in favor of reverent, scattershot sense-impressions that are as unsatisfying as they are thought-provoking.

The film is arranged around interviews with Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell, drummer and mastermind behind the influential band Darkthrone, and Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes, creator of Burzum and perpetrator of many of the heinous crimes that make black metal’s early-90’s milieu so infamous. Fenriz is an affable misanthrope, articulate if digressive, and he is the source of the best interview fodder, though his most piquant observations are given no more weight than interminable shots of him reflectively sipping beer. Vikernes, interviewed in his stunningly commodious Norwegian prison cell, has the clear-eyed surety of a sociopath, expounding eloquently on the alienation and crackpot philosophy that drove him to create jarring, lo-fi heavy metal, then burn down irreplaceable 11th century churches, then stab his friend in the skull.

If you’ve already heard of Fenriz, Darkthrone, Varg Vikernes, and the rogue’s gallery of other black metal figures who appear in the movie, Until the Light Takes Us will be an intriguing trove of frank interviews, lost photos, and rare footage. But what if you’re a neophyte? Aites and Ewell admittedly are, and they provide little context for either the sound or history of black metal, requiring the viewer to glean what he or she can from naturalistically presented material. The film is at its best when it sticks to the gory tales of suicide, arson and murder that surround the music, effortlessly marshaling a complicated chronicle of poisoned friendships and heinous crimes without abandoning its personal focus.

Unfortunately, without a graspable intention or an internal logic, the filmmakers’ decisions about what to include and how to include it become increasingly difficult to parse. In one early scene, Fenriz is stopped on a train and strip-searched by a group of avuncular plainclothesman. It seems that he has been profiled, but the question isn’t posed. Aites and Ewell seem content just letting their subjects hold forth, never unpicking the roots of the music, never pressing deeper, swallowing Vikernes’ rehearsed justifications about American cultural imperialism and cutting to tired shots of a Norwegian Subway franchise. The decision to enlist Scottish electronica duo Boards of Canada to provide much of the film’s interstitial music is a head-scratcher. Save for nebulous carping about how black metal was ruined by Magnus-come-latelies who co-opted its message and politics for their own purposes–the film’s ostensible message–Until the Light Takes Us seems to pretend that black metal faded out of existence in 1994. When omnipresent extreme metal drummer Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg explicitly condones the murder of a gay man by his friend Bard “Faust” Eithun, the film barely breaks stride.

Most confounding is footage featuring Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard. A vulture on black metal’s corpse (paint), Melgaard appropriates the music’s imagery and aesthetic in a way that the word “gauche” only hints at. He is presented in the movie as all that is wrong with black metal’s impact on world culture. Or so it seems. The filmmakers never get anyone to say as much on camera, and his condemnation (at least, I think that’s what it is) is conveyed through the faintest of Fenriz frowns. For all his execrable art, Melgaard’s participation is the crux of the film’s off-kilter construction. It’s all well and good to get out of the way and let your material do the talking, unless the material is alternately suspect, inconclusive, confusing, and understated to the point of incomprehensibility. Then it becomes time to make a point or two.

Until the Light Takes Us will screen at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts July 9th (7:30pm), 10th (7:30pm, 9:30pm), and 11th (7:30pm, 9:30pm).