Howl of the Underdogs Movie Review

Usually, band documentaries are reserved for two types of Acts. Either, those who made it big and want to have their legacy cemented, which will often be titled something like “The Rise Of Band.” Or, those who made it big and crashed so spectacularly it makes for a good story: “The Rise And Fall Of Band.” What usually doesn’t happen is “The Lack Of Rise Of A Great Band That Somehow Never Made It Big.” But Madder Mortem isn’t really a usual band, with their decades of experience pumping out fantastic albums with stunning emotional depth and a completely unique sound which I’ve not heard replicated or imitated anywhere. Howl of the Underdogs is not a documentary on their rise nor their fall, but an intimate portrait of a one of a kind group of artists and the darkness that fuels their inspiration.

The structure of the movie is a little scattershot. Several themes run in parallel, hopping from thread to thread; the history of the band, the natural and cultural environment in which they came to fruition, mental health issues, the process of creating the 20th Anniversary edition of their debut Mercury. Though this approach dilutes the ordinary chronological step-by-step narrative you might expect, it serves to build an ever-evolving context. When drummer Mads Solås comes forward about his depression and looming feeling of burnout, it’s framed against the Norwegian philosophy of janteloven, a set of Scandinavian societal rules that discourage standing out, but also stand in the way of reaching out for help. The mixed attitudes the band’s received in their rural municipality finds its backdrop in a general dislike of academic or cultural development.

And the band does not shy away from getting personal, with the most poignant spotlight shone on Agnete, who struggled with her self-image for much of her life and recently underwent weight loss surgery. I’ve never lacked for a few1 pounds extra myself, and hearing about the bullying she underwent in high school as the chubby smart kid was painfully familiar. Mads’ depression hits the point where he has to cancel the tour or risk burnout. Even BP, Agnete’s younger brother and the band’s producer, opens up briefly about his struggle with perfectionism and pushing himself too hard in the face of a culture that practically encourages self-doubt. These cases are not discussed in isolation, but commented on by the band, family, partners and friends.

Visually, the film is simple but effective, using well-edited archive footage in the small rooms and cluttered tables that make up the band’s rehearsal spaces and homes. It’s occasionally given to talking head syndrome, but more frequently uses voiceover effectively, setting the tone by splicing the archival footage with beautiful aerial shots of their native Nord-Odal region blanketed in snow. Unsurprisingly, it’s the sound design, and specifically the music that’s the strongest part of the documentary. It uses many snippets of Madder Mortem’s own songs, of course, and regularly switches to acoustic or acapella renditions as well. But the power of their music becomes self-evident. Early on in the film, a fan mentions: “Whatever it is that you’re feeling, there is a Madder Mortem song that goes with that emotion.” And so it is, for the tone of every scene is struck beautifully by song selection alone, from anger and hurt to striking willpower. A particularly powerful moment is when the song “Stumble On”2 accompanies a heartbreaking scene of Mads watching footage, from the tour he was supposed to play, from his laptop.

The central thesis of Howl of the Underdogs is the question “Where does the darkness [in our music] come from?” I have little doubt that anyone watching, and particularly those who recognize that darkness, will leave with a satisfactory answer. It’s a raw and frequently unpolished film, one that dives deep into difficult and personal moments, but such emotional intimacy is second nature to the band. It’s not a film without its flaws; though its purpose is clear, the jumpy nature of the narrative comes at the cost of some cohesion, and not all the footage has impact.3 I also have to wonder how a film like this will strike people who aren’t already fans, or even familiar with Madder Mortem. But it is a deeply honest portrait of a band who always bare their hearts to their audience, and that connection is both the strength of the group as a whole, as well as the core of this small but affectionate film.4

Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: June 26th, 2021

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Alright, quite a few.
  2. So stand your ground / You’ll bleed and hurt, but you will stumble on / When nothing else is making sense and luck has let you down / Make your losses count / Make your hours count
  3. For instance, the manager of the motor club in whose bar the Mercury re-recording was done shows some of the bikes and tells a story of how one member died 10 years ago, and it makes for a short but strange detour.
  4. I would also like to extend my heartfelt thank you to the band for including my Marrow review in their rundown of press blurbs. We’re feeling the love!
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