Growing up in the Washington, DC suburbs in the 80s and 90s among a certain subculture of disaffected youth meant that the short cult documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot had an especially legendary status. Everybody seemed to know a friend of a friend’s older brother or sister who had been caught on camera by filmmakers John Heyn and Jeff Krulik outside that 1986 Judas Priest concert at Largo, Maryland’s Capital Centre (RIP). But geographical proximity alone to the titular parking lot does not explain the 17-minute video’s popularity.
Since its first screening at a club called DC Space, Heavy Metal Parking Lot has become one of the most beloved of rock films worldwide, a “sociological study of headbangers,” writes Rolling Stone, who rank the short at number 33 in their list of the 40 Greatest Rock Documentaries. “Decades before the internet made sharing video clips as simple as posting to Twitter or Facebook,” writes The Verge, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot caught on, not through official distribution channels, but through an underground network of fans that would dub VHS copies and pass them along.” (The movie got a big boost when the filmmakers gave a copy to DC-area native Dave Grohl, who kept it on regular rotation on the Nirvana tour bus.)
What makes this exposé of metal fans so special? Although there’s undoubtedly a segment of its viewers who laugh at the film’s collection of mostly anonymous mid-eighties metal fans, for the most part, Heavy Metal Parking Lot‘s appeal has not been that of so much viral internet content—mean-spirited comedy at the expense of naïve amateurs. Thought it’s tempting, as Rolling Stone remarks, “to mock these mullet-afflicted metalheads… there’s an undeniable sweetness that permeates” the mini-doc and its subjects’ “innocent quest for rock & roll kicks.”
The sheer goofiness and joyous abandon that is 80s heavy metal contributes to the film’s character. And much of the love of Heavy Metal Parking Lot comes from the same nostalgic place as that for Dazed and Confused except that its characters are the real deal. The documentary presents an authentic record of mid-80s suburban youth in America. It’s likely costume designers of Richard Linklater’s follow-up period piece Everybody Wants Some!! studied Heavy Metal Parking Lot in detail.
Like Linklater’s testosterone-heavy films, Heavy Metal Parking Lot is largely dominated by dudes—metal bros who “may occasionally be inarticulate, sexist and obnoxious.” And yet, even fans of the film who grew up in more enlightened times and places—and who may not have had friends who looked just like these guys—have found much to love in the movie. The slice-of-life character studies and interviews create “a time capsule,” Krulik told the Verge on the documentary’s 30th anniversary screening, one surprisingly still “a little bit shocking.”
On the other hand, Heavy Metal Parking Lot remains a vital, timeless record of fandom—of the unvarnished, uncritical devotion young lovers of any pop culture phenomenon bestow upon their object. And like certain other documentaries about fandom—such as 1997’s Trekkies—Heavy Metal Parking Lot allows its subjects to fully be themselves, without judgment or condescension. Even as ordinary, mostly nameless, mostly stoned and shirtless kids in the suburbs, those selves prove to be as at least as entertaining as the flamboyant band they came to see.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot will be added to our list of Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.. Above you can also watch, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot Alumni: Where Are They Now,” the sequel to our featured film.