El Duce Tapes (The) (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (18th April 2021).
The Film

El Duce Tapes (Rodney Ascher, David Lawrence & Ryan Sexton, 2019)

Recalling Todd Phillips’ white hot punk rock shockumentary Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies (1993), El Duce Tapes uses archival footage to take a look at Eldon Hoke, aka ‘El Duce’, lead singer and drummer for controversial heavy metal band The Mentors, whose uniform as a band included black executioners’ hoods.

A quite clearly troubled individual, Hoke had a turbulent childhood – which is documented openly here – and as an adult courted controversy in between downing beers and shots of strong liquor. The music of The Mentors provoked ire owing to their allegedly misogynistic lyrics (the band’s focus was on what Hoke labelled ‘rape rock’), and Hoke’s ironic-but-perhaps-not-ironic onstage use of Nazi salutes and proclamations in support of Hitler (‘Everybody that likes to rape women, say Sieg Hiel’, Hoke proclaims in the concert footage that opens the film), which led to the band finding a following amongst white supremacist groups in the US.

Towards the end of his life, Hoke achieved some notoriety for his brief appearance (shown in this film) in Nick Broomfield’s documentary Kurt & Courtney (1998), in which Hoke alleged that Courtney Love had offered to pay him $50,000 to murder Kurt Cobain. Hoke claimed that he knew the person who had carried out the alleged ‘hit’ but refused to name names. Only a week after his interview with Broomfield was recorded, Hoke was killed – hit by a train in an incident that some have suggested was deliberately staged to keep Hoke quiet, but which was in all probability a drunken accident.

Much of the film consists of interview footage, shot on video, with Hoke and other members and associates of The Mentors, including bassist Steve Broy (aka Dr Heathen Scum) and lead guitarist Steve Carlson (aka Sickie Wifebeater). This footage was recorded by actor Ryan Sexton between 1989 and 1991, after Sexton met and befriended Hoke through a chance encounter. It is interspersed with various television appearances by Hoke, including his memorable turn on The Jerry Springer Show, in which the producers saw fit to pitch Hoke, visibly struggling to defend his right to free speech regardless of the challenging content of his lyrics, against a woman who had been raped – and sit back whilst verbal sparks flew, with the inevitable impact on the show’s ratings. (Hoke asks the woman, ‘When were you raped?’, and when she tells him it was in 1970, he responds: ‘You look kind of familiar, I have to say’.) When after Hoke reveals that he was beaten brutally by his father as a child, Sexton asks why he valourises brutal and dictatorial regimes in his performances. ‘Because it’s entertainment’, Hoke says bluntly, ‘and I finally realised where the fun party is’. When one is beaten and treated cruelly as a child, one either identifies as a victim or as the abuser. In the footage here, Hoke seems to oscillate between these two positions.

The Jerry Springer Show was a programme of outrageous exploitation and cruelty; and a theme ticking away in El Duce Tapes is the media’s exploitation of the vulnerable in pursuit of a sellable story – something which resonates in the ‘be kind’ era and its focus on mental health and emotional wellbeing. The mocking and jeering of the audience of Springer’s show seems to consolidate Hoke’s existing tendency towards self-hatred: ‘I’m an ugly motherfucker. That’s it. I don’t care anymore’, he asserts. Some aspects of the film also seem remarkably prescient when viewed in the context of Trump’s presidency and the so-called ‘alt-right’ movements: at one point, Hoke suggests that he should run for president. ‘I’d make the first, greatest dictator this country has ever had. I’d build a Berlin wall, which is actually the Mexican wall, and not allow any immigrants to sneak into the country’.

On the journey, we witness the absurdity of The Mentors’ lyrics (‘My woman from Sodom/Let me fuck her bottom’; ‘I got a donkey dick/It’s big and thick’) and the toxicity of some of Hoke’s comments, which are qualified almost desperately by his bandmates: for example, Broy questioning Hoke’s description of the band’s music as ‘rape rock’ but then qualifying this with the statement, ‘but really, it’s his [Hoke’s] personal vision’. Where some of the other interviewees try to intellectualise Hoke’s lyrics, Hoke himself says simply that ‘I just speak about what’s on my mind and believe’. The lyrics were so ‘potent’ that lines from the song ‘Golden Showers’ were read out, to wonderfully comical effect it has to be said, at the Senate’s 1985 PMRC hearings, designed to highlight the ‘immorality’ of rock music lyrics: you haven’t lived till you’ve heard Pastor Jeff Ling’s deadpan reading of the lines ‘Bend up and smell my anal vapor/Your face is my toilet paper’.

One may very reasonably wonder if current American popular music is more or less toxic than that of The Mentors. The El Duce Tapes has that covered for you, working into its final moments a montage of vulgarity from recent American pop culture – clips from South Park, the music video for Robin Thicke’s rape-themed pop ditty ‘Blurred Lines’, the video for Peaches’ track ‘Vaginoplasty’ (‘I’m just blessed with big, big, big lips’). The film suggests: if you think The Mentors are vulgar, look what’s flown under the radar and been taken for granted since.

There is some clever editing and symbolic montage: so when Hoke says that his family members, other than his sister, ‘are gonna die a gruesome death for this evil’, the filmmakers cut to footage taken from the opening of Mario Bava’s Le maschera del demonio (Mask of Satan/Black Sunday, 1960) in which, via a point-of-view shot from the perspective of the condemned witch (Barbara Steele), a hooded executioner advances on the camera with the titular spiked mask.

Video

With a running time of 104:29 mins, most of El Duce Tapes consists of footage shot on video. On the commentary track, the filmmakers discuss the decision to ‘lean into’ the VHS aesthetic of the footage Sexton had recorded, maintaining the 4:3 aspect ratio and embracing the look of the footage by incorporating onscreen texts and effects that were in tune with the videotape footage. The lo-fi method of shooting is captured very well in this HD 1080p presentation, which uses the AVC codec. It looks as you would expect 30 year old videotape footage to look – and the rawness of the material confers authenticity on the material.


Audio

Two audio options are presents: a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and a LPCM 2.0 track. Both tracks are pleasing, though again the VHS footage is limited by the nature of the medium used to record this material. The 5.1 track has greater sound separation in its presentation of the film’s original score (by the band Nilbog). Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are provided, and these are easy to read and accurate.

Extras

The disc includes:
- Audio Commentary with co-director Rodney Ascher, editor/co-director David Lawrence, producer Tim Kirk, and Sid Barron (who designed the video-style effects for the film). The group discuss the origins of Sexton’s recordings and the enigma surrounding how Sexton met Hoke for the first time. It’s claimed that Sexton met Hoke after finding Hoke sleeping outside Sexton’s house, but doubt is cast on the veracity of this tale. The participants discuss the provocative nature of Hoke’s claims and The Mentor’s music, and how during the extended production period for the documentary (which took three years to assemble) the impact of the #MeToo movement caused the filmmakers to recontextualise some of Hoke’s assertions. They also discuss some of the parallels between Hoke and Trump’s presidency, which was something else that the filmmakers noticed during the long process of assembling this documentary. The aesthetic of the documentary and the decision to ‘lean into the VHS-ness’ is discussed (ie, maintaining the 4:3 aspect ratio) is articulated too.

- ‘The Ryan Sexton Tapes’ (34:47). El Duce Tapes’ producer, Tim Kirk, talks with Ryan Sexton about the VHS recordings Sexton and Kirk made of Hoke and his bandmates. This is an audio interview, conducted over the telephone, which plays over a montage of still photographs. The pair discuss their experiences listening to tracks by The Mentors. They talk about their encounters with the band and shooting the VHS interview footage, building a rapport with Hoke and the others, and reflect on the sequence of shooting. It’s a warm conversation between the pair.

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‘The El Duce Sessions’ (4:17). Here, we are presented with video footage of the film’s score being recorded by Nilbog, with Nilbog’s Jonathan Snipes offering an explanation as to how the band scored the picture.

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‘More El Duce Tapes’ (12:54). This is an assembly of additional VHS footage of Hoke and the band; this footage didn’t make it to the final edit of the documentary and runs the gamut from footage of a drunken Hoke to fragments of stage performances by The Mentors.

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‘El Duce Stories’ (3:45). Footage of Hoke relaying various anecdotes to camera is edited into a montage, to dryly comic effect.

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‘Tape 2: Hollywood Reservoir’ (16:45). VHS footage shows Sexton interviewing Hoke. The pair shoot the breeze about various topics, from Hoke’s favourite type of plant to love and family. Hoke is on fine form, responding to Sexton’s questions with rapid fire wit. Hoke reveals his favourite films are Faces of Death, Mark of the Devil, Bonnie & Clyde and Dillinger – and says that he likes to masturbate to Abba(!)

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‘Reality Check Presents The Womentors’ (6:17). This is videotape footage of The Womentors, an all-woman tribute act to The Mentors, from gonzo US television show Reality Check.

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‘Return to Rape Rock Mountain’ (29:04). This is a lengthy new interview with Steve Broy (Dr Heathen Scum), at his property, ‘Rape Rock Mountain’ – ‘no cops allowed here, anything goes’. Broy offers a tour of his property, including various locations and souvenirs relating to The Mentors. He talks about The Mentors, discussing the origins of the band and the PMRC incident and Hoke’s references to Nazism – suggesting the latter were intended as a form of parody rather than endorsement. He also talks about the Kurt Cobain story.

Overall

What emerges from El Duce Tapes, really, is a depiction of El Duce (rather than Hoke, perhaps) as pathetic, a broken adult: an overweight, shirtless dude in an executioner’s hood who veers between being profoundly articulate and childishly in need of attention – the latter almost as a response to the former. And for El Duce, attention seems to result from being deliberately provocative. ‘He likes to see people cringe’, Hoke’s sister Anneka says at one point. One may remember Malcolm McLaren’s famous declaration: ‘Be childish. Be irresponsible. Be disrespectful. Be everything this society hates’.

Certainly, there are moments where it seems the character Hoke has constructed enables him to make some deeply subversive comments: of President Bush, Hoke says, ‘I like him because he’s a Nazi’. Hoke’s alcoholism becomes a badge of desperation, and he is rarely seen on camera without booze in his hand. His behaviour is consistently self-destructive. (‘I guess… I hate myself’, he asserts after suggesting, in a moment where the mask seems to crack, that he genuinely respects ‘Different colours. Different creeds’.) Footage later in the film shows the heavily drunk Hoke being made to perform like a trained animal for supposed friends and fans, and being mocked and ridiculed when he collapses in a drunken stupor. Ultimately, El Duce Tapes is a profound tragedy that is disguised as a dark, dark comedy. ‘He shocked and grossed people out’, Hoke’s sister says, ‘But it killed him inside’.

Arrow’s release of El Duce Tapes contains a pleasing presentation of the film that is true to its lo-fi origins and ‘found’ nature, with some truly excellent contextual material.

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