November 18, 2019
by Carla Hay
“Los Últimos Frikis”
Directed by Nicholas Brennan
Spanish with subtitles
World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 10, 2019.
If rock music can be described in family terms, heavy metal is often perceived as the trashy, “black sheep” stepchild. For the Cuban heavy-metal band Zeus (which formed in Havana in 1997, during the Fidel Castro regime), getting respect has always been an uphill battle, made all the more difficult because of Cuba’s restrictive policies on rock music. The music primarily comes from Western, capitalist countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which dominate the shrinking market for heavy-metal music. It’s another reason why Zeus is a metal underdog: Often disrespected in their own country, the members of Zeus also know that because they’re in a Cuban band, the odds are stacked against them that they’ll be accepted in other countries that have embraced U.S. and European metal bands.
Despite all of these obstacles, Zeus is still making music after all these years. “Los Últimos Frikis,” which translates in English to “The Last Freaks” is primarily a chronicle of the band’s 25th anniversary tour of Cuba, with tour stops in the cities of Camaguey, Santa Clara, Guantanamo and Ciego de Avila. Before viewers get to see the tour, director Nicholas Brennan introduces each band member in segments that show them at home with their families and playing music.
Lead singer Diony Arce is the expected charismatic focus of the band. In the movie, he discusses his turbulent childhood. Arce says that he was on his own since the age of 11, because his singer mother traveled a lot, and as a child, he would live in hotels, sometimes for two or three years at a time. Learning to be self-sufficient at an early age helped shape his rebellious streak and his leadership skills. His first band was Venus, which broke up in the late 1980s, because of pressure from the Cuban government, which branded Venus as too radical. He was arrested and was in prison from 1990 to 1996.
Eduardo Longa Aguilar (drums), who confesses later in the film that he abuses drugs and alcohol, is seen near the beginning of the movie trying to convince a woman to sell him a soda on camera, because she’s afraid she’ll be arrested for it. Hansel Sala (guitar), who says that heavy metal has to be strong, is a family man who’s proud to show his son how to be a musician. Yamil Arias (bass) is a welder by day, and he says that Metallica’s 1988 album “…And Justice for All” was a big early influence for him. Ivan Muñoz (guitar) says that people listen to hard rock/heavy metal to reaffirm their frustrations in life. The center of Zeus’ musical activities is Maximum Rock, a facility that houses a rehearsal studio and management company for rock bands. The Cuban government opened Maximum Rock in 2007, as the government became less restrictive about rock music.
Heavy metal’s popularity peaked in the 1980s, and it’s been on a steep decline ever since, which is why the few hard rock/metal bands from that era that can still headline arenas around the world (for example, Metallica, Guns N’Roses, Judas Priest) are those that arguably made their best music in the ’80s. However, metal fans who still support the music are extremely loyal, and they don’t care if heavy metal is considered an outdated genre or not. The documentary shows that the audiences that Zeus plays to on the tour aren’t very large (about 200 people or less at each concert) because the cities they go to in the documentary are much smaller than Havana. And by today’s slick and high-tech production standards, the band’s outdoor concerts have the bare-bones look of a garage band performing at a backyard party.
It wouldn’t be a heavy-metal tour documentary without a “Spinal Tap” moment, and Zeus has two of them in the film. When they get to the concert site in Ciego de Avila, to the band members’ horror, they find out that Zeus has been booked for a reggaetón festival. Reggaetón is Cuba’s most popular music genre for young people, and the members of Zeus openly express their disdain for reggaetón, which they consider to be mindless garbage. Arce has somewhat of a meltdown and refuses to let the band play at the festival.
Another “Spinal Tap” moment happens in Camaguey (the last stop on the tour), where the band says Zeus is very popular. But when they get there, they’re crushed to find out that nothing has been set up for the concert, and the performance has to be cancelled. It’s a humiliating scene, and at one point, Arce tells the cameraperson to stop filming. In other words, the tour ended with a whimper, not a bang.
It’s mentioned in the movie that concert promoters in Cuba will make sure that reggaetón shows are high-priced and well-organized, but rock concerts are handled in the opposite way. However, you also have to wonder what kind of incompetent management Zeus has for these embarrassing things to have happened to them on such an important tour for the band. That question is never answered in the documentary, since there are no managers or agents shown at all in the movie, which gives the impression that maybe Zeus is self-managed. If that’s the case, then Arce, as the leader of the band, has to take some responsibility for these screw-ups, but he never does. At one point in the movie, he gripes: “This country has made a complete fool out of me.”
Back at home in Havana after the tour ends, Zeus is shown in a career limbo, as the band members lament how hard it is to keep the band going when heavy metal is constantly disrespected and they can’t make enough money as rock musicians to pay their bills. It’s a struggle that hard rock/metal musicians all over the world are facing, especially those who’ve never had a catalogue of big hits to fall back on to bring in the nostalgia crowds.
There’s a huge jump in the timeline toward the end of the film, which shows that Maximum Rock has been shut down, and the building is in disrepair. The band is also coping with disillusionment and wondering if it’s worth it to keep the group going. “Los Últimos Frikis” director Nicholas Brennan obviously filmed this documentary over several years, and the movie is compelling because it’s about a heavy-metal band that’s been able to survive for decades in a restrictive, Communist country. In an era where bands rely on social media to promote themselves, it’s interesting to see Zeus operate as a band in a country where Internet access doesn’t come as easily as it does in other nations. In that sense, much of what’s seen of Zeus looks like a time warp back to the pre-Internet days when heavy metal was at its most popular.
To its credit, the film avoids heavy metal clichés of portraying the band members as dumb partiers. (And considering that the band members have settled into middle-age, they would look kind of ridiculous if they acted like frat boys on tour.) However, the movie would have benefited from better editing to make it a more cohesive story. For example, the ending of the movie feels very tacked-on and too rushed.
But kudos to the filmmakers for getting Dave Lombardo (Slayer’s on-again/off-again drummer, who’s of Cuban heritage) to compose the documentary’s music. Lombardo is also an executive producer of the film. His participation adds an extra layer to the kinship that the Zeus members have for each other and their loyal fans. It’s a connection that comes through loud and clear in the film, and which has stayed with them even during their toughest times.