The Ultimate 80s Rock Documentary 'Heavy Metal Parking Lot' Will Never Die
We caught up with filmmaker Jeff Krulik on the 30th anniversary of his and John Heyn's seminal metal fan documentary.
All photos courtesy of Heavy Metal Parking Lot/Jeff Krulik
We are now exactly as far removed in time from the 1986 release of Heavy Metal Parking Lot as its sleeveless truants and zebra-print daytrippers were from Elvis Presley's gyrations on The Milton Berle Show. In other words, the world's greatest 16-minute documentary about Judas Priest fandom currently stands at the precise midpoint—almost to the day—of the filmed history of rock 'n' roll.
HMPL is one of the VHS era's unassailable cult classics, although it's hard to know what that term means since the creation of YouTube and the evergreen availability of nearly everything. The thrill of discovering a copy in a friend's tape collection or at a rare DC-area screening is gone. That the film continues to reward viewers in its freely available .MP4 incarnation is a testament to its weird goodness, its good weirdness, and the unscripted enthusiasm of its stars: a Chaucerian succession of hilarious caterwauling youths. It's hard to imagine a less cynical group of people. The underage beer-guzzling is as quaint today as the lines of pristine Mustangs and Firebirds or the public displays of devotion to Judas Priest, a devotion that remained unshaken and sincere even after the definitive anti-hagiography that was 1984's This Is Spinal Tap.
Two novice filmmakers named John Heyn and Jeff Krulik shot HMPL in the hours before a Priest show at the since-demolished Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, not far from the Baltimore suburb where I grew up. My childhood was ordinary—not in the least metal—although at 12 or 13, I had a best friend who loved any form of self-serious rock music. One summer, after renting Detroit Rock City on videotape, Mike convinced his father to drive us all the way to Camden, New Jersey, to see KISS play with Ted Nugent. Probably the quality of experience we were hoping for was something akin to HMPL's metal-head hajj, since we actually brought Mike's family camcorder along with us. It was a major moment of teenage disillusionment to discover an audience of balding divorcés and middle managers in peasant blouses. Years later, after seeing HMPL, I realized that it didn't matter anyway. Our idea had been done a generation earlier.
Once you join the church of HMPL, you start to see its influence everywhere: Beavis and Butthead, found-footage festivals, this website. The film's concision, disinterest, and speed prefigure the form of the viral video. You could describe it to your niece or nephew as a long collection of Vines.
I spoke with Krulik as he was preparing a new exhibition, Heavy Metal Parking Lot: The 30-Year Journey of a Cult Film Sensation. The show opens this Friday at the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland, which has recently accepted the Krulik Archive.
VICE: Before we start, I should tell you I grew up in Laurel, Maryland.
Jeff Krulik: No kidding! Cool.
Parts of my suburban Maryland milieu really remind me of films of yours like HMPL and Obsessed with Jews.
I like to say I've built a career—or let's call it a body of work—by staying put. Most of my subjects are local to Maryland and DC. But they have widely divergent interests. I have a big body of work, but all roads lead back to HMPL.
Could you talk a little about the film's genesis?
John Heyn and I were in our twenties and both living in Washington, DC. Unlike John, I didn't go to film school. I got an English degree at U. of Maryland. But I did a lot of college radio at Maryland and a fellow DJ turned me on to public access through local cable television. He was like, "You can make free-form TV!" That was really appealing to me.
When I was twenty-five, I became the public access director for this little studio called MetroVision Cable in Southern Prince George's County. That's where I was working when I met John. We were both aspiring filmmakers. We gravitated toward documentary because of its immediacy. You could capture something with just the resources you had. John was an assistant to John Waters; he worked on Polyester. I was a fan of John Waters. We had similar sensibilities.
Maybe a year after we met, John had the idea to do a video about metal fans. We weren't connected to that culture, but we grew up going to the Capital Centre. Everybody knew it. You had the Baltimore Civic Center, and you had the Capital Centre, where you could pack in these big arena shows, and metal was big at the time. We weren't metal heads, but we were curious. And I had access to this professional quality equipment from the public-access channel. Very few people had video cameras back then. It was certainly light years before you had video on your phone, this modern era when everything is documented to death. It was dumb luck that we caught Judas Priest, because they're still pretty iconic.
"We had no plan. No game plan, no preproduction. It was basically just 'don't drop the camera.'"
They weren't Cinderella.
Exactly. So on this beautiful Saturday night in May, John picked me up at my studio, a mile away, we drove out and paid to park, then got out with these clunky cameras. I wish to hell we had pictures of us, but we didn't turn the camera on ourselves. It wouldn't have even occurred to us to do that. I had this thing called a three-quarter-inch U-matic deck, a big three-quarter-inch camera, and a separate microphone. We would trade off holding the Portapak and the microphone. The tapes were twenty minutes each. We used up three tapes and a bit of a fourth, sixty-five minutes of footage in total.
Did you have strategies for getting people to open up to you?
No, we had no plan. No game plan, no preproduction. It was basically just "don't drop the camera." We were also worried people might take offense at our being there, but we couldn't have been more wrong. Everybody, to a person, was very friendly and into it.
It's clear that people enjoyed the novelty of being filmed.
Yes, that had a lot to do with it. People knew what cameras were, of course, but they didn't necessarily see them very often outside of special occasions. So people would mug and carry on. They wanted to know where we were from, what we were doing.
At one point, you say you're from MTV, as a joke—
—and Nathaniel goes, "Bullshit!" That's one of the popular phrases from the film. We weren't trying to fool anybody. What happened was, the channel where I worked was a public access channel called 6A.
So it was between channels six and seven?
Yeah, of course! So we're trying to tell people, we're with channel 6A, the public-access channel. And nobody understood that. I started saying, "We're with MTV" out of exasperation. We never set out to impersonate anybody.
We never went to the concert. We went back to my studio to watch the raw footage, and I came up with the name right then. The edited version premiered in October 1986 at a club called d.c. space.
Do you think that you could replicate the film now? Or are people too image-savvy to deliver that kind of unbridled enthusiasm just because a camera is present?
Oh, absolutely. You could never do it today. Unbridled enthusiasm encapsulates it. Everybody was in rare form. That fanaticism does still exist, but I think as far as getting taped and recorded, everyone's so used to that. In fact, you can't even get away from these things now. You go to concerts, and everyone's recording.
"We never went to the concert. We went back to my studio to watch the raw footage, and I came up with the name right then."
That's the other thing that struck me while re-watching the film. Nobody has cellphones. Everybody is hanging out, waiting, drinking. The absence of phones dates the scenes even more than the fashion or music.
You're right. It's funny, I never thought of that, but you're absolutely right.
You know, all the characters have been given nicknames by fans. Somebody made trading cards. One of the guys—the one named "Graham of Dope"—actually wrote a memoir, he got so popular. We did a " where are they now" feature in 2003, where we tracked down a lot of the people who appeared in the original film. I liked that everybody turned out OK, more or less.
At what point did you recognize that the film had picked up a cult following?
First of all, we never showed it on public access. That's a misconception. And we didn't screen it at festivals. You couldn't show video at film festivals. It wasn't done. So we were basically giving out tapes. We showed it in our living rooms and had parties and screened it. We showed it at record conventions and nightclubs, at the 9:30 Club. And we "retired" the film in 1990. Then we moved on with our lives.
The vanished culture of tape-trading is another aspect of the HMPL legend.
Absolutely. It's such an ancient, forgotten concept. You had to have lived through it to understand it. You had to get it from analog tapes, VHS to VHS. Unbeknownst to us, it got passed around and copied, especially on the West Coast, in the entertainment industry. There was this cult video house named Mondo Video a Go-Go [in Los Angeles] whose owner, a guy named "Colonel Rob" Schaffner, was a fan. He never reached out to us—this was before the internet—but he recommended it frequently, and in 1994, John got a call from Sofia Coppola. She'd rented it from Mondo Video and looked up John's number with directory assistance. That's when we figured out that there was something going on.
Was it then that you made the sequel, Neil Diamond Parking Lot?
Yeah, in 1996. We went back to the Capital Centre, which was now called the US Air Arena. We wanted to do something that was the polar opposite of HMPL. Still, we ended up getting great stuff. The fans were every bit as charismatic, excited, and passionate as Judas Priest fans. Ironically, Neil Diamond has become kind of a cool cultural figure now, but at the time, he was pretty schmaltzy. Both Judas Priest and Neil Diamond have come to possess this cachet that neither had at the time.
And several years later J. K. Rowling was doing a signing in my neighborhood, and we did Harry Potter Parking Lot, so I guess by then it was a franchise. We even turned it into a short-lived TV series called Parking Lot.
How about your more recent projects?
The gallery exhibit has been a big focus these days. The Mass Media and Culture Collections at the University of Maryland is taking my archives. I'm also working on putting out a screener DVD for Led Zeppelin Played Here, which is a feature-length documentary I made a few years ago about Led Zeppelin's first area concert at the Wheaton Youth Center [in Silver Spring, Maryland]. It's kind of a phantom show.
You seem to like to document these liminal spaces—sidewalks and lots where people are waiting for events—without documenting the event itself.
You're right, that's true. I guess it's a way to breathe some importance into something that doesn't feel important. So I'm happy whenever we can spin gold from straw. But like you said, the waiting—not the event—is what we were there to document.
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"Heavy Metal Parking Lot Exhibition, Film Screening, and Discussion" will take place on Friday, May 27 at 6 PM at the University of Maryland in College Park.