A little over a year ago, nine terrorists drove into Paris with guns, grenades, and suicide belts. They were there to perpetrate a coordinated, calculated mass murder on behalf of ISIL and, more symbolically, to launch an assault on culture itself, by turning the city’s houses of mirth – soccer stadiums, cafés, restaurants, and of course, the Bataclan concert hall – into monuments to death and fear. They wanted to spill blood, to shut the West up.
Anyone with a connection to the music world — be they label owner, booker, artist, or casual fan — felt the tremors from Paris, and more of them than not can instantly recall the circumstances under which they first got word of the tragedy. The events of November 13th were especially significant for journalists like myself. I was nearing the end of my shift at the Pitchfork news desk when the story broke – just as my co-workers were strolling out the door – in the form of my editor’s piercing exclamations. Before long, we were all huddled around the office coffee table after hours, feverishly refreshing social media as confusion gave way to disbelief (“Check the death toll again; that can’t be right”), followed shortly thereafter by profound dread. It was our 9/11.
While those evil men accomplished their first goal (130 people died that night, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Europe in over a decade), they failed miserably at the second, particularly with regards to the rock and roll they hated so much. Three months after the attacks, Eagles of Death Metal — the California band whose Bataclan concert they’d disrupted with bloodshed, whom they’d tried so desperately to kill — returned to Paris. They took the stage at L’Olympia to sing the blues, crank out riffs, and, to borrow frontman Jesse Hughes’ words, shake their dicks. Freedom and fun: That’s what rock’s all about.
So forms the crux and central argument of Colin Hanks’ new HBO documentary, Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends), which explores this arc of tragedy, death, rebirth, and rock and roll as experienced by Hughes, his fellow Eagles (especially drummer and Queens of the Stone Age figurehead Josh Homme), their peers (most notably U2, who invite the Eagles to play a Paris show a few weeks after the attacks), and the fans who attended the show on that fateful night. It’s less traditional doc, more 84-minute juggling act, split into thirds: one part a crash course on the Hughes-Homme bromance and the band it beget (complete with embarrassing yearbook photos and re-enactments), a product of their brotherly love; one part tearful oral history of the attack and its aftermath; and one part redemptive comeback story-cum-mini concert film.
Hanks faced some initial resistance from the Eagles when he proposed the documentary – unsurprising considering the mental scars they incurred that night and the uproar over the impassioned political statements regarding gun control and terrorism a shell-shocked Hughes made in the ensuing months, which he understandably feared would overshadow everything else. Accordingly, “Nos Amis” skews tender, honing in on its “emotional truth,” a silver lining of sorts.
That truth, Hanks posits, is love, and he takes great lengths to argue that point: especially in the live shots, which emphasize the everlasting love between artist and audience. “I fucking love you motherfuckers,” Hughes gushes to crowd after rabid crowd, darting back and forth like a giddy, tattooed puppy. These fans may as well be his children, and on the evening of November 13th, he welcomes them with a heart-shaped hand sign, the aforementioned profanity-laden exclamation, and a declaration of love en Français. “When I look around, only two words come to mind,” booms Hughes. “Nos amis.”
Moments later, it’s war. In the film’s most disturbing moment, Hughes recalls peeking out from behind the curtain during a pause in the carnage, only to witness a theater full of bodies falling like “wheat in the wind.” He recalls a warm, red mist filling the air, the taste of pennies on his tongue. “It’s not like it is in the movies,” he whispers, choking back tears. “It’s a force pushing a body in a direction it doesn’t want to go, and it rips it open, and it makes noises that aren’t normal – people make noises that aren’t normal when something’s exploding out of their chest and shit.” With a grisly image like that seared into your mind, it’s hard to stay cheerful, even in the wake of others’ acts of heroism – the attendees who helped each other find the exit, the gentleman who helped the shell-shocked band into a cab – or the film’s triumphant ending, which finds a cape-clad Hughes strutting the stage once more.
Hanks’ “emotional truth,” then, is an inconvenient one: Rock lives on, but the wounds remain. Oddly, he leaves one of the deepest scars untouched: the passing of Nick Alexander, the band’s touring merchandise manager and close associate who died in the attacks. Save a few renditions in the background, there’s no talk of “I Love You All The Time”, the Zipper Down single covered by everyone from Beck to Florence and the Machine in the passing weeks to benefit the victims: a puzzling omission, considering the anthem’s ubiquity; it’s basically the sonic equivalent of the heart emblem.
Hanks’ aforementioned glossing over of Hughes’ political comments and conspiracy theories proves problematic as well. Understandable as the omission may be from the perspectives of both filmmaker and subject – Hughes later apologized for his comments, and besides, who the hell are we to tell a survivor how to process his trauma? – it contradicts the movie’s underlying message of peace, love, and unity.
However incomplete, Nos Amis nevertheless stands as an engrossing portrait of the power of honesty and friendship, the permanence of art, and the perseverance of the human spirit. Everyone loves a good comeback story, after all, and in our current climate of existential fear and ample political uncertainty, where division and suspicion run high, we could all do with a reminder of what ties us together: our shared desires to live, love, and rock the fuck out.