One of my favorite films out of the North Bend Film Fest was the latest documentary from Rodney Asher (Room 237; The Nightmare). The El Duce Tapes is an equally horrifying and fascinating look into the frontman of controversial 80s/90s shock rock group The Mentors. Eldon Hoke, aka "El Duce," dubbed the band’s brand of music “Rape Rock” and wrote and performed what are arguably some of the most offensive songs ever recorded.
In the early 90s, filmmaker Ryan Sexton began shooting footage of El Duce to put together a short film about the band. The project never really came together, as shooting continued on and on, filling multiple VHS tapes, which eventually sat in storage. Asher and David Lawrence have taken them and edited them down into a horrifying and engrossing examination of the man, the persona and the space where the two meet.
If you’re not familiar with the work of The Mentors, that’s fine - you’re probably better off for it. But Asher gives you everything you need to know in the first 15 minutes of the film. Led by El Duce, the band embraced a culture of toxic masculinity and put it front and center in their songs, with titles like “Woman from Sodom,” “Golden Shower” and “Sit on My Face and Squirm.”
The film is built from a variety of footage, including live performances, one on one interview footage with Sexton and El Duce, clad in his iconic executioner’s hood, and clips from appearances on shows like Jerry Springer, with El Duce, promoting the shock value of his music and lyrics and getting his crowds riled up with calls for rape and violence. I spent the first chunk of the film loathing the subject with every passing second and fearing what I might see and hear on camera next. El Duce presents as a vile, misogynistic asshole of the highest caliber.
Occasionally though, Sexton manages to catch him in an unguarded moment and we get to learn a little more about his past - he talks about his rough childhood, the things that he has grown to fear and the darker moments of his life. We begin to understand the elements and the circumstances that came together to make this man what he was. A horrific misogynist, yes, but also a sad, lonely individual who was incapable of making his way in the world and whose only form of communication was to lash out at everything around him. The El Duce Tapes doesn’t make you love El Duce (or even really like him, for that matter), but it does gently invite you to pity him, in spite of his horrible persona.
It's a very challenging film, given the nature of the man at the center of it, but also a fascinating one. Asher and Lawrence never lionize their subject but they don't attempt to villainize him either. The film is a portrait of a despicable, arguably evil man, but that portrait is created entirely by that man himself. The film asks interesting questions along the way relating to art, censorship and the like, and leaves the audience to decide for themselves just how they feel about El Duce and the particular corner of culture that his music calls home.
Movie Score: 5/5
Check here to read all of Emily von Seele's North Bend Film Fest 2019 reviews!