Adam Dubin Showcases the Camaraderie of the Bay Area Thrash Metal Scene in 'Murder in the Front Row'

Adam Dubin Showcases the Camaraderie of the Bay Area Thrash Metal Scene in 'Murder in the Front Row'

By Chris Steffen

Sep. 11, 2019

Adam Dubin didn't grow up in the Bay Area thrash metal scene, but he's spent a lot of his professional life working with its top export. In the early 90s, the Brooklyn-born filmmaker was brought in by Metallica to document the recording of the band's juggernaut self-titled album, and he became their go-to hand for behind the scenes footage. He also earned early acclaim for co-directing the Beastie Boys' classic "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" and "No Sleep till Brooklyn" videos.

In his new film, Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story, Dubin looks beyond Metallica to paint a larger picture of the place that welcomed the Los Angeles ex-pats, where Exodus, Testament, Death Angel, and Possessed were playing wild shows and turning unsuspecting venues like Ruthie's Inn into camaraderie-fueled dog-piles.

Based on the photo book of the same name, Murder in the Front Row tells the stories of the scene's biggest supporters, both in on and offstage capacities, mourns those who have been lost, and transmits a sense of awe about how this testosterone-fueled teenage racket became such a globally-embraced sound. The film is currently on tour around the United States, with VOD and home video releases to follow. Dubin spoke with AllMusic about choosing which threads to follow, the rare footage he was happy to dig up, and the future plans for his unseen "black album" recording footage.

AllMusic: When you were coming up with the structure of the documentary, how did you decide if you wanted to make a movie for the die-hards or for a more general audience?

Adam Dubin:
I approached it as I wanted to tell the human side of it. I always want to make a film that someone with die-hard interest will enjoy, because I'll get you up close and personal with these artists, but I wanted to make a film with a larger audience than just die-hard metalheads. I was approaching it from what I found in the book, and that's a story about the fans and the musicians. I tried to treat them equally, because there was a time when everybody, from James Hetfield on down, was just an 18-year-old kid playing this music and being involved in this scene, and that interested me a great deal.

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AllMusic: There are so many tangents you could have taken, even with minor characters like scene fixture Toby Rage, who's featured in a great stage-diving photo.

Once I got the book, I looked at these pictures of guys like Toby Rage jumping from an unimaginable height at a show and seeing these people in the photographs who really moved me, and I wanted to know more about them. As I dug in more, that's when I found out about the very human stories that were at the core of this scene, so that was really what interested me. I found these stories and said, "These aren't even in the book." The pictures tell some of it, but like the story of [band manager] Debbie Abono, this woman was obviously beloved and surrounded by all the rock stars of that era, who is this person? That's what I wanted to find out.

AllMusic: You also get into the value of specific places, like Ruthie's Inn, which was a somewhat improbable place for music this intense.

There were many clubs that made the scene, but the most stories seemed to come out of Ruthie's Inn. It was a great story, with a guy like Wes Robinson being the promoter there, and a jazz aficionado, that's a great human story that's not well-known outside of the scene. And look how much good he did, he gave a lot of people a chance, and that's fantastic. It was nice when I went back with [Exodus members] Gary [Holt] and Tom [Hunting], and Gary put in context by saying it was as important as CBGB's was to the New York punk scene. It's a great way of telling how important it was to people there.

AllMusic: I appreciated that you didn't spend time rehashing stories that have been told ad nauseam, like Dave Mustaine's exit from Metallica.

I'm not interested in doing a Behind the Music thing with salacious details. It's been done, so I wasn't interested in Mustaine getting kicked out of Metallica, because I don't find it the most interesting thing. What I find much more interesting is what he did after. I looked at Kirk Hammett's reaction to getting the call and joining Metallica, that's what I was much more interested in.

Making a documentary that can run in 92 minutes is a long, long series of choices that you make. The guiding ideas were that I wanted to show the camaraderie in the scene, that there were good people that put their heart and soul into it, and to get that, I sat with [Murder in the Front Row authors] Brian [Lew] and Harald [Oimoen] for a few days and laid out story lines.

AllMusic: I was shocked when Kirk Hammett told the story of seeing Metallica before he joined the band and how he said, "They'd be so much better with me." He's usually so diplomatic.

I was blown away when I heard him say that, I'd never heard him say that. Brian Lew was blown away, too. We were down in Mexico City, hanging out for a few days while they're playing three nights at a stadium, and Kirk was in the right frame of mind. He's usually very reserved, but he just was feeling it. The feeling I got is that he needed to tell this story, this was his childhood, and he needed to talk about this. Not that many people come to him to talk about his life before he joined Metallica, it's as if he sprang to life on the day he joined. What I loved getting to him on was before Lars and James ever came to town, before he knew they existed, Kirk Hammett was a mover and shaker in his own world, putting bands together, making stuff happen, and playing, and he would have been a successful musician without them, and then he enters this group and becomes what he is.

AllMusic: Was there a particular piece of footage that you were especially excited to have dug up?

A really cool thing was my producer got footage of Dave Mustaine when he came back to the Bay Area with Megadeth, playing at the Keystone Berkeley. This is in early '84, early Megadeth, and Kerry King is playing with him. So we got hold of this raw footage, cleaned it up with some technology, got audio from someplace else and lined it up, and it's in the movie. It's so cool to see this early time of a very raw Dave Mustaine up there, with a vengeance, really bringing it. He's pissed, he's up there showing his new machine to the Bay Area, and they're loving it.

AllMusic: It's funny to note how many songs from this scene were also about the scene.

Bonded By Blood is basically a documentary of the scene as it was being developed. You read the lyrics of a lot of it, particularly the title track, and it really is. They're talking about building a scene, these violent pits, and they're active and energetic and headbanging.

That's why I stayed away from drugs, or even sex. The lyrical content of the songs doesn't really bare that out. If you were doing a documentary about Guns N' Roses, it's all in there, that's their lyrical content. But not so much in thrash metal, thrash is much more about headbanging with your friends and fantasy, it's more of a fun take-off point. Even Larry LaLonde says that Possessed wasn't really into Satanism, it was just something to freak people out.

AllMusic: You were a fly on the wall during the recording of Metallica's black album, and your film doesn't take a side in regards to the quality of the music or the band's departure from thrash. Did you have your own take on their new direction?

The black album, for me, was close to Led Zeppelin or something, so I loved it. I can't stress how incredible it is to sit there in the studio and hear a song like "Enter Sandman" come together. That song is almost taken for granted now, it just is, it's so iconic, but back then, it was still forming.

The ones that stood out were "Sandman" and "The Unforgiven." When James was putting in the acoustic guitar, which now is like, sure, of course there's acoustic guitar at the beginning, but then they weren't so sure about the acoustic guitar. Then they started adding more sounds, the snare roll at the beginning, the sounds that make it sound like a western movie or something, and as that came together, you're like, "This is the most amazing record."

So I was blown away. I liked their earlier stuff, but I didn't grow up with Metallica, so I don't think I had the same investment in them as someone who listened to them as a 14-year-old when Master of Puppets is just the law. So I approached it with enough of an outsider's eye that the black album seemed like a logical next step. Had I been at Ruthie's Inn, I don't know what I would have thought, but I knew I loved what I was hearing.

AllMusic: To be honest, I always wondered if you staged the footage of Kirk coming up with the solo to "The Unforgiven."

One of the rules with those guys, they said, "We're not going to redo anything, if you missed something, you missed it, don't even talk to us about that," and not that I would have. I came from the fly-on-the-wall school of documentary, birthed from D.A. Pennebaker, so for me it would be unthinkable to ask somebody to redo that, it would never happen. So that was a fancy bit of editing.

You film and you film, and a year later you try to put this together. It's hard what they're doing, they're blazing new trails, so there are times in the studio where an artist struggles. I give Kirk a lot of credit for letting me put that in the documentary, because it was discussed at the time. What was discussed was, "Is this going to be us hitting all the notes, or do we show that we missed some?"

So we have Kirk Hammett struggling to get a very difficult guitar solo, and I think every guitarist knows some day you have to put the guitar down and go home and say, "I can't get it today." He came back another day, and while I don't think I filmed him getting the actual solo, it was pretty close. That solo, then and now, is still one of my favorite guitar solos he's ever played, it's majestic and towering in all the right ways.

I'm so happy that's in the film, and we have more of that in these new segments that are coming up. They've been putting out these box sets over the past few years that feature all this extra stuff, and I've been allowed to go back into the archives and dig around in my footage and create more segments. So there's more material coming out very soon from the treasure trove of film from A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, a bunch more segments.

AllMusic: You've also shot a lot of stand-up specials. That sounds like a pretty straightforward job, but are there unexpected difficulties that come with it?

The challenge is that you have one shot at this, and you want to get it right. You can be prepared by knowing the routine, it's usually pretty well-rehearsed, but you also have to be prepared to capture whatever happens. So you want to get some crowd reactions, and you can't know who's going to laugh at what time.

Mostly I've worked with Jim Breuer and Lewis Black, and both of those guys, to me, I hear it as a kind of music. It's got an absolute timing, I can count out beats to how long it's going to be, and then a punch, and it's very musical. Jim Breuer is like heavy metal, but Lewis Black is like jazz or something, but it's very musical. That's why they always say, comedy is timing, it's all about timing, when you drop that punchline. As I get to know the routine, if you watch me directing, I'm also timing out a move for the camera, I know the punchline is coming, zoom in, boom, switch camera, and it works like that. I view everything as music, and comedy is music of a different sort, but to me it's musical nonetheless.

Toby Rage photo by Harald Oimoen