The El Duce Tapes at LFF: remarkably shrewd shock-rock-doc
If I had to describe The El Duce Tapes in a single word, I might say ‘shrewd’ – which would be a surprising answer if you knew what The El Duce Tapes was about. A scuzzy shock-rock-doc consisting almost entirely of trash-can VHS footage depicting the frontman of a long-forgotten controversial band condoning rape, violence, and Nazism, pretty much all you might expect about the film would be some good ol’ fashioned dirty sensationalism. But no, created by modern maestro Rodney Ascher – still the only person to successfully blend documentary and horror as if the two genres belong together – The El Duce Tapes is something much more.
Pretty much devoid of narrative or commentary, the story goes that erstwhile actor Ryan Sexton found Eldon Hoke – frontman of shock-rockers The Mentors, stage name El Duce – passed out on his front lawn and filmed him on VHS tapes for the next two years. Since 1991, the tapes have been in storage. Whilst it’s unclear how Ascher got hold of the videos, they provide an absolutely riveting investigation into a complex persona that gets remarkably to the heart of a lot of modern political discourse.
Beginning provocatively with a quote from D.W. Griffith which argues for freedom of speech in cinema, we’re quickly dropped into a dank, sweaty club where El Duce, clothed in an executioners hood and not much else, yells “Everybody that likes to rape women, shout Sieg Heil” before a clamouring chorus of fans. Is ‘free speech’ only a valid concept if we allow such offensive things as El Duce lyrics and D.W. Griffith films to reach the public domain?
At times, Ascher highlights statements from the frontman that feel eerily similar to Trumpian discourse – “I would build a Berlin Wall which is actually a Mexican wall, and not allow any immigrants to sneak into this country” he says, whilst daydreaming about becoming the ‘first great dictator’ of America. A whole section is dedicated to ‘golden showers’, and a great deal of the lyrics/statements revel in taking advantage of women with little to no resistance – what we might call ‘pussy grabbing’. He refers to The Mentors’ music as ‘rape rock’. Is the Trumpian mindset, often cited as an anarchic, rebellious response to elite governing institutions, a manifestation of the same kind of directionless anger that made The Mentors famous? Is Donald Trump shock-rock?
But all is, perhaps, not what it seems. Hoke’s band member recounts the humble beginnings of the The Mentors – musically literate, worldly, and obsessed with free jazz. Initially playing fusion styles to little success, he suggests that Hoke created the band’s offensive persona as a slice of absurdist money-making performance art – “a conscious sell out” to give the masses the stupid shit that they wanted. Hoke’s sister, too, recounts their troubled upbringing where their father, a bomb designer for Boeing, savagely beat them nightly. Tellingly, she describes him as Hitler.
Duce’s ramblings, at this point, begin to seem less and less about hate and more about a general rebellion against his father – “he’s sick, I’m normal” he barks at one point. Moreover, what happens if we step back? What’s more harmful – a drunkard (potentially) ironically screaming egregiously offensive lyrics, or his father’s creation of a napalm bouncing bomb that could viciously kill-off entire communities in an unjustified war? Because one of those things is state-sanctioned and largely forgotten, or at least only condemned half-heartedly, whilst the other was actively ripped apart in the Senate and will likely provoke almost everyone who watches this film. What do we care about, and why do we care about it?
Towards the end of the film, as Hoke begins to slip further and further into a void of alcoholism and homelessness, another side to the provocateur emerges completely. At a particularly revealing moment, he explains that The Mentors will not be playing at a white nationalist venue, primarily because the audience are fucked up racists. This seems totally at odds with the zillion times he’s shouted ‘Heil Hitler’ in the past hour.
But even if the above clears Hoke of actually believing the hate he spouted, can we ever draw a line between motivations and actions when the net effect of those actions exists independent of their intentions?
There’s a lot to unpack in The El Duce Tapes, and Ascher is smart enough to know when to let his audience do the legwork. Instead of telling us what to think, the film provides us with the videographic evidence of a person from nearly 30 years ago, and asks us what we think about that person, what they said and did, whether they were allowed to say and do what they did, and what we think those answers say about modern America. Whatever answers you come up with, the end result – and the knowledge of what different insights or ideas others might get out of this film – is sure to be absolutely chilling and truly provocative. For cheap shocks, you’ll have to look elsewhere.