Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll
Before watching Andrew Horn's documentary We Are Twisted Fucking Sister!, the only thing I knew about the titular 80s glitter band was that they'd had a couple big hits and that front man Dee Snider became a reality-TV personality in subsequent years. I was too young and too uncool to appreciate Twisted Sister in their heyday, and "We're Not Gonna Take It" stirred nothing more in me than childhood flashbacks to Gung Ho and Iron Eagle (which featured the rock anthem). I approached this film as a fascination, expecting a fluffy, sensational Behind the Music-style journey of fame, excess and burn-out. Instead, I found a resonant and utterly engrossing chronicle of artistic struggle that ranks among the best films I've seen in awhile.
The band got their big break in 1982, playing a condensed, profanity-free set on a Brit-pop TV show called The Tube. Horn opens with a clip from that show, and then rewinds to a decade earlier, when Snider wasn't in Twisted Sister, and the band's identity was still fluid. Guitarist Jay Jay French envisioned a group that had the glam and stage presence of New York Dolls or David Bowie, but who could really play hard-driving rock n' roll. Hence, the hair, the makeup, the attitude--along with fickleness, betrayal, and the distractions of a rock lifestyle that are more conducive to partying than creating art. French reluctantly appointed himself lead singer just to keep his dreams moving forward.
Then Snider joined. A sassy but sheltered Long Island kid who loved music and craved attention, he clashed with French, who was ostensibly wiser in his age, and certainly intimidating as a force in the band. Horn cuts together some great anecdotes of those early days, almost moderating a conversation between Snider and French, who we never see interviewed together. That's not to imply there is or isn't some lingering animosity (my knowledge of the band stops where the film does), but there's an odd rapport between filmmaker and subjects that suggests Snider and French, in talking about each other, are talking to each other through Horn.
Despite their differences, the musicians shared straight-edged sensibilities that helped them navigate all the craziness that was to come. Neither drank or did drugs, and Snider has been in love with his wife, Suzette (also Twisted Sister's costumer), since they met during a gig nearly forty years ago. While other band members quit or were replaced due to substance abuse and violent tendencies, French and Snider focused on raising the bar and boosting the band's profile. Twisted Sister performed relentlessly, gigging five- and seven-night weeks for ten years, and developing a fan base that would travel for hours to see them play a crappy dive bar.
At their pre-global-fame height, the band was the top act on the New York rock-club circuit. Horn interviews several old-school fans (one of whom leans up against what I can only hope was a recently cleaned urinal), who share stories of being ridiculed for liking such a weird-looking, obnoxious rock group in an era where disco was king. These devotees found each other, and recruited more music lovers to check out Twisted Sister. By 1980, the band was selling out club after club, moving up the chain to the coveted 3,000-5,000-capacity venues--all without a record deal or legit radio play. Their success (as argued by some, including Twisted Sister) can be attributed partially to music, and partially to an outrageous escalation of stage antics, from hanging Barry White in effigy during their "Disco Sucks" era, to their unofficial "Club Destruction Period" (which is exactly what it sounds like).
That's a high-level view of the beginning of Twisted Sister's journey. You'll have to let Horn fill you in on the rest. I can almost guarantee you've never heard such messed-up, almost-famous rock stories told by such colorful raconteurs (rockonteurs?). But don't worry, this isn't just a talking-heads piece. Like an analogue version of Amy, We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! is an immersive media tapestry that employs collage, rare show footage, interviews, and text to create an indelible experience. Cell phones and 24-hour media access weren't a thing back in the late 70s, but Horn appears to have scoured the Earth to find every bit of memorabilia, every snippet of a performance, and every articulate storyteller with first-hand experience of that time and place to construct his accessible yet head-spinningly complex narrative.
I can imagine another rock biopic confining the entirety of this film to an off-the-cuff mention of "lots of bar gigs, lots of deals that didn't go through". This movie isn't interested in the artifice of stardom and worldwide popularity. At the end, Horn teases that lots more drama found its way to the band after they hit it big. But Snider, French, and the other members of Twisted Sister speak passionately about the leading-up-to days, the dingy, sweaty times of uncertainty in which they proved to themselves that they were worthy and capable of drinking their naysayers' milkshakes. We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! isn't just an unmarketable title for a movie. It's a call to action for artists of all stripes, a declarative rebuttal to the crippling voice of self-doubt that asks us every day, "Who the fuck are you?"