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Thrash or Die: Director Adam Dubin Talks New Documentary “Murder in the Front Row”

Adam Dubin
Photo credit: Tashina Byrd

When Bazillion Points released the Murder in the Front Row book in 2012, Invisible Oranges realized what a treasure trove it was. Justin Norton interviewed co-authors Brian Lew and Harold Oimoen before the book hit shelves. The collection of photographs from the epicenter of the potent Bay Area thrash scene showcased a time before camera phones could document the exact moments Kirk Hammett made the bold move from Exodus to Metallica, Slayer ditched wearing eyeliner, and Dave Mustaine would play the first Megadeth shows.

At the 2013 edition of the Outside Lands Music Festival at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Lew would meet up with Adam Dubin. Although an “outsider” from the San Francisco scene as a native New Yorker, Dubin had been working with Metallica since 1990 when doing a record company promo on the recording of what would be known as “The Black Album” expanded into the four-and-a-half hour A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica documentary that showed Metallica go from underground heroes-done-good to this generation’s biggest rock band. It would begin three decades of work with the band.

Dubin knew there was something special within those pages that showed the band way before he ever met them and the scene that they transcended to get to that point. In fact, he knew it as far back as the first interviews he did with the band before the book even existed.

“By the time I got to work with Metallica which was in the fall of 1990, there was already a bunch of things about them that were legendary. It would be years before I would untangle it and I always felt like I would enjoy an experience of going back before I entered the world with them and seeing what made them,” he said.

“There was an interesting moment that I remember. It was the first time that I ever interviewed Kirk Hammett on camera in a real way which was in October of 1991, and we were making an interview series. I cut together a film that ran before on the ‘Wherever I May Roam’ tour. He said something like, ‘I started Exodus.’ I didn’t know he did Exodus. He very vaguely touched on it, but it stuck in my head for some reason. It was almost like Kirk’s life started when he joined Metallica, you know?”

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We’re speaking at a Philadelphia pizza place around the corner from PhilaMOCA. The mausoleum-turned-art space is hosting two sold-out screenings of the Murder in the Front Row documentary whose existence is owed to both his early curiosity and the impressive photographs in the book.

“What I loved was, when I finally got my hands on that book, there’s the whole life of what’s happening before Metallica comes to town and that was really interesting, and then you see the effect when Metallica does come to town,” he explained. “You see an effect in two ways: you see the effect on the scene [and] you see the effect on Metallica, because Metallica’s not in San Francisco for six months and by that point they were already 50% a Bay Area band, you know? I was like ah-ha… that is a story that’s interesting to tell.

“It was almost like a level playing field,” he continued. “Metallica wasn’t bigger than everybody else, they were just one of the guys looking for a guitar player or looking for a bass player. Then Mustaine comes back [and] he’s trying to keep it together so he has Kerry King with him. People were helping each other more than backbiting each other. So I wanted to explore that, and I guess it was like when Brian Lew handed me the book, I looked at these pictures, these wonderful pictures that just breathed to me. You could feel the sweat. You could feel the emotion in the pictures.”

As a native New Yorker whose formative years were spent with Rick Rubin at NYU which he parlayed into directing iconic Beastie Boys videos in the Licensed to Ill days and Def American videos for the likes of Trouble, Wolfsbane, Black Crowes, and The Four Horsemen, he wasn’t at Ruthie’s Inn when Slayer wrecked the place. He didn’t see Exodus at all, let alone with Hammett on guitar. He never set foot in The Stone. But he set about trying to use that to his advantage.

“I’m very clearly a Brooklyn New Yorker as my accent will tell,” he laughed. “But I had two things I think helped: one, it was an outsider’s perspective… rather than that be a hindrance, I used that as an asset. I could stand back from it and look. My insiders were Harold and Brian who created the book. But I could stand back from them. In a way, sometimes those guys, they couldn’t see out of there, they were so inside. I felt like I could look down from above a little bit. So that was one thing.”

He continued, “But the other thing was I understood scenes because I had been in one in New York. When they were doing all this, the Beastie Boys were part of a scene, and that whole New York downtown thing was a scene that I was involved with and that I was around, and I remember it. The Beastie Boys before they were Beastie Boys, they were hardcore kids, and there was a whole gang of hardcore kids that would turn up at all the hardcore shows. There was nothing any more significant about those three guys than the other of the ten, 20 guys that were running around. So I felt I understood that.”

He felt that there was nothing wrong with telling a story that he wasn’t involved with — even though many music documentaries are told from the perspective of someone who was there — as long as he was honest and let those who were there speak for themselves.

“There was a moment in the film. There’s one of the people who built the scene, a guy named Erik Lannon. He’s not super famous, but he played in a lot of bands [most notably Mordred on their first couple of demos]. He’s in the film, and he has this original Metallica shirt, and he’s showing it to the camera and says that he was there that first show when Metallica came to San Francisco, which would put it in the fall of 1982. He goes, ‘I was there. I know a lot of people claim to have been there but I was actually there and I got this shirt from the bass player Ron McGovney at the time.’

“That comment resonated with me,” Dubin concluded. “The minute he said it, I can remember it, and of course I used it in the film, because over [the] years I had kind of felt the same thing. Over the years, a lot of people have talked about, oh, they were there at downtown, they were there at the [pre-Beastie Boys] Young and the Useless shows, and I was like, ‘No, you weren’t there because if you were there I would’ve known you were there because you knew everybody by name or face,’ you know? It wasn’t a big group!”

Dubin realized that between his Metallica background and the fact that they were easily the biggest export from the Bay Area, it would be easy to turn Murder in the Front Row into Metallica: The Early Years and ignore the many other bands that made the scene so legendary. He took that into account even if he didn’t, no less an authority than Metallica themselves did.

“They didn’t want to make the film like that either,” the director affirmed. “I was given a clear mandate that they would only be in it if they were kind of treated equally with everybody else. And I agreed with that. That was a good idea.

“I like to say this is not a Metallica movie, it’s a movie with Metallica in it,” he said. “And it’s difficult, I’ll tell you, because Metallica, first of all, they’re really good on camera at this point. They’re really good. And they’re charismatic. So there’s a natural tendency to want to lean on them, but I can just say I didn’t want to make the film featuring them more than everybody.

“But then you start to go into it and we approached it like this: there was a time when everybody was equal. When James Hetfield was just an 18-year-old kid, just like the kids listening to him who were maybe his age or a little younger, and that’s the time I wanted to get to and bring everybody back to the interviews which we did by showing them the old photographs and stuff like that. At that moment in time, that’s really cool to capture.”

Although you can’t ignore Metallica’s impact, Murder in the Front Row takes great pains to not ignore anyone else.

“I wanted to express that Metallica were just part of that but then you have these great other stories,” Dubin said. “Quite frankly, a whole movie could be done about Testament and it would be a great movie. And certainly Exodus is still really an amazing story. I like to point out that before Lars and James ever came to town there was Kirk with his own band that he put together called Exodus that was playing thrash music.”

Testament to this inclusiveness was the time and care spent on the fallen heroes of the scene. Aside from the obvious attention paid to Cliff Burton, former Exodus frontman Paul Baloff and band manager Debbie Abono are eulogized in touching ways through interviews with bandmates and friends.

“I wanted to have their stories because I felt that they were absolutely intricate with the scene itself,” he explained. “I never knew Debbie Abono. I never knew Paul Baloff, and I never knew Cliff, but I felt as I explored the scene that these three people had a massive influence on the scene.

“Baloff is probably less well-known — thrash people know him but a wider audience doesn’t really know about what a wild man he was. I think he was really good for thrash. He lived it and breathed it and believed it and I think it was almost like Paul Baloff was put on this earth to promote his own love of thrash music and get it out there and he probably did it at expense to himself in a way. He did it with everything he had in his body. That’s what I got from Paul. So I wanted to express that.”

The scene where Exodus’s Gary Holt and Tom Hunting visit Baloff’s grave is especially touching.

Abono, who managed Possessed, Exodus, Vio-Lence, Forbidden, and others and was known as the “Band Mom” for helping out long-haired musicians as a septuagenarian, was beloved among the scene. This was evident from interviews from everyone from Rob Flynn to her children.

“Debbie’s an even more amazing story because it’s so unusual,” he marveled. “I did really want to give her her due and her fair share because I feel she affected so many people’s lives. I mean, even the Metallica guys speak so warmly about her that she must have been really quite a person.”

Even long-time fans who watched the Cliff ‘Em All video back when it was on VHS knew that Metallica playing the Day on the Green in 1985 was special. Among early shows in dark clubs and theaters, it stands out as the first time Metallica was video-taped unleashing their revolutionary sound upon a festival audience.

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Even to those who have seen this footage, the story about how famous promoter Bill Graham chastised the band for trashing their trailer was one of the funnier moments of the film. Moreover, the way the show is presented in the film as a prideful, triumphant homecoming for the departed bassist gives it a new perspective.

Dubin said, “Thank God MTV News had their camera there that day and it was on the side of the stage that Cliff was on — one camera to record that magnificent performance. What does that mean to a kid who grew up in Castro Valley to be playing that day? He had attended Day on the Greens. Kirk had also attended Day on the Greens. What does it mean to be standing up there playing, seeing faces that you’ve grown up with? And not just that, beyond that, 60,000 other faces!”

Aside from the two Philly showcases, Murder in the Front Row has been playing across the country since its informal premier at San Francisco’s Kabuki Theater last April. For a director used to working with the biggest band in the past few decades, the DIY approach is a refreshing change of pace.

“I still have not been contacted by film distributors and yet we’re selling out theaters every night we play this film,” he said. “It’s almost like the music itself. The powers that be, so to speak, don’t recognize the power of metal, but as we sit here we know there’s people all around this room in metal shirts, they know what they want. They know the story they want to come see. So we were like, ‘Let’s just put it in theaters and see what happens.’ And guess what? Every theater we’ve put it in has sold out and demanded more. It’s kind of a very nice wrap up to this story, you know?”

Murder in the Front Row is screening at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Brooklyn. Due to the screening on Tuesday, September 10th selling out, a second showcase on Friday, September 13th at 10:00 p.m. has been added. Following both screenings, WSOU DJ Doug “The Hurricane” will host a Q&A with Murder in the Front Row director Adam Dubin.

Additional screenings across the country are listed below:

09/08 – Raleigh, NC @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/10 – Dallas, TX @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/10 – San Antonio, TX @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/10 – Brooklyn, NY @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/12 – Winchester, VA @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/12 – San Francisco, CA @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/13 – Brooklyn, NY @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/13-19 – Denver, CO @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/14 – San Francisco, CA @ Roxie Theater
09/16 – Littleton, CO @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/16 – Denton, TX @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/16-17 – Long Beach, CA @ Art Theatre
09/17 – Dallas, TX @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/17 – Eindhoven, NL @ LAB-1
09/19 – Athens, GR @ Athens Intl. Film Festival
09/20-22 – Seattle, WA @ Grand Illiusion Cinema
09/21 – Denver, CO @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/22 – Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop
09/24 – Dallas, TX @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/24 – Seattle, WA @ Grand Illiusion Cinema
09/26 – Oakland, CA @ Oakland Int. Film Festival
09/26 – Seattle, WA @ Grand Illiusion Cinema
09/27 – Omaha, NE @ Alamo Drafthouse
09/28 – Window Rock, AZ @ Goen Cinemas
09/30 – Dallas, TX @ Alamo Drafthouse
12/13-14 – Santa Ana, CA @ Decibel Metal & Beer
12/16 – Athens, GR @ Gagarin 205 (Gimme Shelter Film Festival)

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