In 1985, there was a tragic attempted double suicide in the American city of Reno where two young men took a shotgun and shot themselves in the head. One, Raymond Bellknap, died instantly of his injuries, but his best friend James Vance survived, albeit with horrendous disfigurement to his face. Their parents were convinced one thing was to blame, and it was not any bad childhood or drift into petty crime and drugs: it was heavy metal music which had caused one death and one ruination of a life, and what was more they were going to take the boys' favourite band Judas Priest to court to prove it.
So it was in 1990 that the case came to trial, the crux of the prosecution's argument being that the band had put subliminal messages into their songs, specifically one called Better By Me, Better Than You which they understood to be an invitation to suicide, including the repeated phrase "Do it" hidden backwards in the track. By now, if you've heard of this case you'll know how it turned out, but Dream Deceivers, an hour long documentary co-produced with public television funds that got a cinema release in various places, offered a lot more depth and background to what would seem to be an open and shut case.
Dream Deceivers has in many ways taken on a life of its own, distributed across the world and even shown in classrooms to illustrate the legal ramifications which unfold. And being that it's such an emotive subject, it has been adopted by those who not only love heavy metal but those whose taste in entertainment stretches to the less socially responsible media that often get blamed for having a detrimental effect on their consumers to show that they are needlessly scapegoated when there are other, far more concrete and demonstrable influences on a life blighted by unhappiness. Aspects such as the alcohol and drug abuse and broken homes the boys in question suffered.
There are interviews with those who were closest to the case, including Judas Priest who seem bemused at best that they should be drawn into this situation and aggrieved at worst that their careers have been distracted by the trial, not to mention dismayed their particular brand of music has been demonised once again. Three years before Ray and James tried suicide there had been a notorious episode of TV medical detective show Quincy M.E. called Next Stop Nowhere where Jack Klugman was pitted against punk rock music and decided that it was a contributing factor in the death of a young fan. This has often been held up as an example of the ludicrous lengths the squares went to to take down the music they didn't understand.
And yes, it is very funny in its clueless fashion, but it paved the way for a whole conservative movement which made metal, horror movies and so on the whipping boys of society when there were far more pressing concerns to consider. James's mother Phyllis has her devout Christian faith as a support when things got rough, but hearing her religious platitudes don't half sound hollow when the documentary delves into the lives of the two boys and finds a deeply unhappy existence of dead ends and a desperate need to find something which reflects their feelings of suffocating nihilism for some sort of comfort and validation. Interestingly, Phyllis points out that Judas Priest lyrics replaced scripture in the lives of James and Ray, which is very astute, but also sobering - as if James's devastated features were not sobering enough - when you realise this was no real cure for their ills. You are on the side of the band when they point out how flimsy the case against them is, yet you lament not only James and Ray but the millions of no-hoper kids like them.