2017

Sheffield Doc/Fest Review: Josh Homme and Andreas Neumann’s ‘American Valhalla’

A bizarre collaboration of genius is the driving force behind American Valhalla, a documentary-cum-spiritual meditation on the perils of fame and the myth of the now-extinct rockstar. What becomes obvious, only a few minutes in, is that this is a love story. Regal and imposing, like his Norwegian ancestors (or like Odin himself), Joshua Homme, Queens of the Stone Age guitarist and frontman, is a visually arresting counterpart to Iggy Pop’s spritely menace. They stand, holding hands, both the picture of seriousness and farce. The film follows them as they record “Post Pop Depression” in the mystic setting of Joshua Tree, Homme’s isolated recording studio in the desert.

Homme recalls the time when Iggy, out of nowhere, sent him a package of personal essays and poems, a “physical manifestation of being ripped open and peering inside.” Both narrate their own versions of the same event through old diaries and journals, touching on Pop’s eccentricity and Homme’s awe.

The film is both profound and funny, an intimate look behind the façades whilst also perpetuating the mystery and coolness of rockstar associations. It’s about style, slick editing and how one event becomes the stuff of legend. The film mentions Iggy’s infamous recording session with David Bowie, and there is the sense that comparisons between that event and the one unfolding onscreen are unavoidable, even welcomed.

The spiritual connotations are all there; the desert, or “Valhalla” — the majestic place one reaches at death in Norse mythology. Iggy searches for his own such place. The film is interested with the big ideas: ageing, fulfilment, the emptiness of a life constantly “drunk or stoned.” What persists is the notion that money and fame cannot buy internal satisfaction, coming from those who have been there. Odin, who ruled over Valhalla, was the God of War and Poetry, a fitting symbol for the music business that causes one to go to war with oneself via drugs, drinking and self sabotage.

Pop is surprisingly humble and affable, despite his legend status, openly admitting his faults (“I’m just not a good guy. I’m selfish.”). There is no aura of falseness about him, so American Valhalla appears genuine and deep, rather than a publicity stunt, giving off the scent that both men, at a crossroads, want to document or share the lessons they’ve learnt during their brutal yet electrifying lives.

Homme has always been the focus of urban rock legends, with his unique playing style and desert “generator” parties, igniting the fuel for what would become the “stoner rock” genre. He has an affinity for collaboration, a uniquely egalitarian view of music as joining together with others who may be nothing like him, and the live moments of the film are a testament to the brilliance of fusing together such diverse forces of nature. (The live moments are also wildly exhilarating.)

Their inimitable approach to music shines through — music as philosophy, music as a good time, music as an art form with the instrument as a vehicle to reach certain places. The depths of the lyrics reinforce the burning thread that runs through the film, reminding that, in the end, fame and money (and the accoutrements of it all) can still leave a gaping emptiness, a wound, when everything disappears.

American Valhalla reflects the curious melding of two minds to create something entirely unique; an intriguing mixture of serious reflection and self awareness. There is a sense of bearing witness to history-in-the-making and of the unlikely melding of soulmates. It’s hard to imagine a time when Josh Homme and Iggy Pop were ever apart. The story of time — past and present, both universal and subjective — is told through their music, lasting testaments to what they’ve achieved.

Katie Driscoll (@katie1435) is a film programmer in Brighton, UK. She’s passionate about feminism in horror films, documentaries and Jack Nicholson.

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