Murder in the Front Row
When Adam Dubin set out to film Murder in the Front Row, a documentary about the beginnings of the Bay Area thrash metal scene, it wasn’t supposed to be through the eyes of a musicologist &mdsah; which he admits he is not. “I’m interested in how people felt,” Dubin says. “What was going on at the time and what people were responding to — the musicians themselves and their fans.”

Dubin — well-known director of many Beastie Boys music videos, including the hilarious “Fight for your Right” — had worked with Metallica for over 25 years before he approached them about being involved in the new film, which also features members of Slayer, Exodus, and other core members of the scene.

In 1990, Dubin famously directed the Metallica documentary, A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, which revolved primarily around the making of the band’s Black Album. Through the eyes of fans, musicians, and their family members, Murder in the Front Row takes viewers through the story of how the Bay Area became the epicenter of the thrash metal scene, and viewers need not be a fan — or even like the stuff — to be fascinated and moved by the story.

“I knew metalheads would enjoy the film, but I wanted people — even if they’re not a fan of the music — to dig the up-close perspective of these guys,” says Dubin in an interview with The Bay Bridged. “You can definitely appreciate what these young people have built.”

The film starts as the flower-power scene is fading away and a new movement in music is being born. It moves into the start of the thrash metal scene, when the musicians aren’t famous yet. In honest and often hilarious interviews, former and current band members recall stories of their first mosh pits and bloody noses; wiping blood all over chicks’ faces; bowling-balling themselves from stage to crowd.

It was nuts. And it was exactly what a lot of the kids in the East Bay were craving. “I want to point out that supporting a music scene for the Bay Area is almost in its DNA. Bay Area people should be proud of this, this melting pot of, amongst many other things, music,” Dubin says.

A lot of the youth in the area were living in lower-income communities. Their home lives were distressing, and they were seeking a new form of family that they couldn’t find anywhere else…in comes thrash metal. Fans couldn’t get enough of it and would trek from all over the area to see some of this stuff. We hear stories from musicians like Kirk Hammett (from, at the time, Exodus, and later of course from Metallica) who, in his earliest years, would come out from Dublin, California to shows in Berkeley, or to hit up their favorite record store on Telegraph.

It was important for Dubin to show that this was no easy feat — we’re talking a one- to two-hour journey via a couple of buses, transferring to BART, and maybe another bus. “I loved that commitment!” Dubin exclaims. “Going to a record store to go and look and see if they can find something cool. That part resonated with people.” Fans at screenings in England and elsewhere shared with Dubin that they’d make the exact same type of trek in their day. It’s a universal theme: youth and the yearning for new music.

Adam Dubin
Adam Dubin (photo: Taylor Jewell)

Those who live in the Bay Area know exactly where these East Bay spots are, but for the film’s wide-reaching universal audience, Dubin wanted to be sure that people in Japan and Mexico and Ireland and everywhere in between would have a visual representation to help get a lay of the land and to see where these musicians were when the scene was forming.

“I’ve known enough Bay Area people to know that San Francisco is not the East Bay — kind of like a New Yorker knows that Manhattan is not the Bronx; is not Brooklyn…and geography was important here. And to be true to this formation and these stories, you’d have to have a sense of where it all took place.”

“I want to point out that supporting a music scene for the Bay Area is almost in its DNA. Bay Area people should be proud of this, this melting pot of, amongst many other things, music.”

To depict some of the geography of what we’re talking about here, including some of those bus-bus-BART-bus journeys, Dubin hired Augenblick Studios to create animations of the maps and some of the characters from the time. The studio was also able to capture some of the scenes and scensters who didn’t really exist on film. Animator Mike Wartella has a kind of R Crumb style that really clicked for Dubin. “He just got it,” Dubin says of the illustrator’s style. Wartella created illustrations of scensters like Rich Burch, “…this pied piper guy with his boom box on his shoulder,” as Dubin refers to him. He was someone that everybody knew. “He wasn’t a musician but a music aficionado…he brought people together.”

Another key character in the film is Ruthie’s Inn, the legendary club on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. “I had to pick which pieces of the story I wanted to tell in 90 minutes, right? And I found that the richest history ran through Ruthies; the most personal. So I decided to go all in on it.” The film depicts a close-up of what it was like to go to those shows, how trashed the venue would get: — the vomit, the blood, even sex on the floor — all told through heartfelt and amused band members, ex-girlfriends, and fans.

One thing that runs through Murder is the passion in peoples’ stories, the humility behind it, and the pride. In creating the film, which was largely inspired by Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew’s popular book of the same title, Dubin says he knew right away that he wanted the film to start around when Exodus started (1979), so the film focuses on the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It was a formative time.

“…they were very emotional right from the outset,” Dubin says of the fans he interviewed. “And it was very clear to me that this was a very precious time in their lives.” With the death of bassist Cliff Burton in 1986, the story takes another emotional tone. “I knew right away I didn’t want to carry this film into the 1990s.” Murder is truly about the formation of a new scene and the peoples lives who were shaped from during that time. “When I screened this around the country,” Dubin says, “There were lots of people there my age and maybe younger who brought their kids with them to see the film–like they were showing them: this is what I lived through. This is our history.”

Murder in the Front Row is out on April 24, 2020 everywhere that films are home-viewed (in this case: iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play). The DVD has Spanish, German, Greek, and French translation.