Film Reviews

Review: ‘The El Duce Tapes’

Hot Docs 2019


The El Duce Tapes
(USA, 106 min.)
Dir. Rodney Ascher, David Lawrence, Interviews directed by Ryan Sexton
Programme: Nightvision (World Premiere)

As The El Duce Tapes evolves into unexpected psychological, and in a way, political complexity, Eldon Hoke, shock rock drummer and frontman for his ‘90s band The Mentors, fantasizes about being an American dictator. El Duce barks that he would “build a Berlin Wall which is actually a Mexican wall, and not allow any immigrants to sneak into this country.”

Hoke was also fond of ranting about unlimited pussy grabbing and Golden Showers. The doc, consisting mainly of VHS footage ex-actor Ryan Sexton shot from 1990 to 1991, plays on multiple ambiguities. Was Hoke really the beyond punk growler in an executioner’s mask, the “King of Sleaze,” who shouts at fans, “Everybody that likes to rape women, say Sieg Heil!” He called himself an advocate of “The 4F Club, Find her, feel her, fuck her, forget her.”

Or like cartoonist R. Crumb, were Hoke’s outages deliberately subversive forays into the most twisted fantasies imaginable, a testing of free expression, not to mention mockery of the realities lurking under the surface of white bread America?

The film begins with a D.W. Griffith quote arguing for the freedom of movies to venture into dark areas, just as other arts do. Of course we agree, although Griffith is the pioneering moviemaker who idealized the Ku Klux Klan and portrayed black men as drooling sexual marauders.

Did Hoke really believe the madness he screamed at the 14-year-olds he “mentored”? His girlfriend, his sister, his sexy onstage dancer, and his studious looking, highly articulate collaborator Steve Broy, tilt toward the idea that it was all an attention-grabbing joke. They and the film itself suggest Hoke might be the kind of artist born to outrage and veer out of control. Cue a montage of swirling Van Gogh paintings and Kirk Douglas freaking out in Lust for Life.

The film explores the tension between a real person and in this case a literal mask. Its montage choices also question whether Hoke really was an untouchable pariah, or just a manifestation of a widespread culture.

El Duce’s Mexican wall rant obviously sounds familiar, and montages link him to more mainstream pop figures: Roseanne Barr, Beavis and Butthead, Cartman’s tirades on South Park, bands influenced by The Mentors, and so on, there’s plenty of evidence to argue that Trump himself is some kind of weird manifestation of shock rock, shock jock culture. Put guitars and drums behind his Access Hollywood riff, and it could be an El Duce number. He was a fixture on Howard Stern’s show, just as El Duce appeared on Jerry Springer’s. Don Jr. and Eric are Beavis and Butthead incarnate.

Near the end of The El Duce Tapes, Hoke sometimes drops his toxic misogynist, neo-Nazi, barbarian persona to say, for example, he refused a gig with the White Power Front. He has all kinds of friends, he insists with apparent sincerity, black and Asian included.

As the film moves forward, Ascher and Lawrence layer in revelations that both confirm what you’ve been thinking and shake up your view of Eldon Hoke. El Duce happily recalls high school vandalism like peeing in jars and spilling the contents on radiators, distributing little packages of shit wrapped in foil, and doing God-knows-what with vomit. He was the “Number One Nuisance,” who also became hopelessly alcoholic.

In stark contrast Steve (Dr. Heathen Scum) Broy recalls that Hoke played in a child symphony. He was serious about music, and his fellow musicians were once aspiring jazz fusion musicians who venerated Billy Cobham, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Jim Hendrix. The transition from jazz to perversion was a “conscious sell-out,” Broy laughs.

Then we get startling revelations from Duce and his sister. Their dad beat them viciously with a paddle, which he had drilled holes into for less air resistance. For the sister, Dad was Hitler. Maybe El Duce’s fascist posturing was more about outraging his father and forcing the grotesque truth on him than a real attitude.

And there’s more. When Hoke talks about his father’s work as an engineer for Boeing, his persona evaporates. His dad created the bouncing napalm bombs that maimed, tortured, and murdered in Viet Nam. Duce’s “Fuck You, I do not submit” stance, obviously originated with his father, whose grave he says he will jump on. “Dad is sick. I’m normal,” he barks.

Rodney Ascher innovated the genre of doc horror with his films Room 237 and The Nightmare. Room 237, which captures in excruciating detail people obsessed by their theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, is scarier than the actual movie. In The Nightmare, Ascher dove further into horror with his hallucinatory, genre picture approach to terrified sufferers of waking nightmares.

Surprisingly for his follow-up to The Nightmare, Ascher foregoes meticulously controlled images for a barrage of degraded video. White on blue, story-advancing title cards appropriately look like the menu screens on an old-time JVC. As for the horror, Dad’s sadism toward his children, and his facilitating of mass murder (through napalm) make his son’s juvenile boogeyman tactics a lot less disturbing than they were at the beginning of the film.

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Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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