It all started out as a joke. A Finnish heavy metal band wearing Gwar-like costumes enters the cornball Eurovision Song Contest in order to freak the squares out. What happened was totally unexpected. They won! And Finland went apeshit. The band, Lordi, became national heroes, a source of enormous pride for the people of Finland. It may be about as hip as a Christmas-themed sweater, but the Eurovision Song Contest is taken very seriously with an estimated audience as high as 600 million people in 56 countries.
Lordi’s win made them a national treasure. The year was 2006. There was even a Lordi cola drink! By 2007 Finland was done with Lordi. Once the fanfare subsided, the home of the whooper swan and Hanoi Rocks banished Lordi to the “where are they now?” file, the dead zone where Spinal Tap, William Hung and The Singing Nun reside. The band that had once been Finland’s ticket to International glory had become an embarrassment.
The worst part of Lordi’s fall from grace is that it really was a case of a joke backfiring. What was intended as a subversive act was seen as a sellout by the audience Lordi really wanted to cultivate: the metalheads. Imagine if The Clash had appeared on Star Search. Lordi lost whatever credibility they had and the Eurovision Song Contest win killed their career while the cheers of millions faded into silence.
Filmmaker Antti Haase has made a terrific documentary about Lordi’s frontman Tomi Putaansuu called Monsterman. The film’s title refers to the title of Lordi’s biggest hit song. Putaansuu, who goes by the name “Mr. Lordi,” and Haase were childhood friends who had lost contact over the years. Mr. Lordi became a rocker. Haase made movies. When it came time for Putaansuu to stage his comeback he contacted Haase about the idea of documenting the rocker’s return to the limelight. Haase agreed and the resulting documentary is a touching, melancholic and deeply thoughtful look at the perils of fame and stardom.
Monsterman deservedly won the Jury Award at this year’s Austin Film Festival. Haase has directed a rock doc that has the cinematic touches one associates with narrative art films. This a beautifully shot movie that aspires to communicate not just by filming talking heads and concert footage but through a visual poetry that evokes feeling in ways that transcend mere reportage. Monsterman has soul.
Monsterman manages a level of intimacy with its subject without ever revealing Putaansuu’s face. In fact, we never see the faces of any of the members of Lordi until close to end of the film - and only one. The effect is quite dramatic because the person revealed is someone we’ve grown to care about. Putaansuu was furious that director Haase had betrayed an agreement they had to not unmask anyone in the band. As a result, Putaansuu has disowned Monsterman. Given the sympathetic depiction of Lordi and the overall excellence of the movie, I think Putaansuu will have a change of heart. In fact, according to Haase the healing has begun. As more accolades roll in, I expect Putaansuu to hit the talk show circuit. And why not? It’s all good theater.
Rock and roll is particularly cruel to its aging stars. For every Keith Richards or Patti Smith, there’s a dozen rockers who’ve fallen into irrelevancy or simply burned out. Does anyone take Axl Rose, Steven Tyler or Sinéad O’Connor seriously anymore? Some older rockers have taken to writing memoirs to keep their hand in the game. It’s a graceful way to keep creating without making a fool of yourself. Others, like Ted Nugent or Meatloaf, just go insane. Sometimes dying is they best way to keep your street cred. Putaansuu isn’t taking his fall from favor lying down. He’s the phoenix who’ll rise from the ashes. It’s the metal thing to do.
In Monsterman, Putaansuu is heroic in his efforts to pull himself up by his boot straps (which are enormous by the way) and resurrect his career. He knows no other world. In many ways, like most rockers I’ve known, myself included, he’s been in a state of arrested development since he was a teenager. He is still surrounded by his vast collection of action figures, masks and horror videos. He confesses that he’s too much of a child to have children himself. He lives alone in a snowbound cabin 50 miles from the Arctic Circle and is still doted upon by his loving mother. His strategy to return to the status of his glory days may actually work. The movie Monsterman is a damned good start.
Shortly after winning the Eurovision Song Contest, Putaansuu told the New York Times…
Being a hero is easy: you just have to win the Eurovision Song Contest, apparently. Until a few weeks ago the whole nation was against us totally — they did not want us to represent Finland. Now all the magazines in Finland are printing Lordi masks for children. There’s not much logic going on inside. But let’s face it, people are stupid.
Tomi Putaansuu is hoping they’ll get stupid again.