Somewhere between the underground and the pop charts, the industrial surge in the '70s - '90s and the megaton media stardom of the last ten years sits Trent Reznor and his surrogate band, Nine Inch Nails. Like Prince, another multitalented hyphenate who practices one genre (soul) while exploring the rest of the musical medium, the dishy doom and gloom poster boy with a penchant for melody mixed with noise has always been enigmatic and hard to define. One moment he's pumping out atonal tributes to bondage and blood rituals. The next, he's crafting classic ballads and full blown dance trance tracks. In an attempt to decode this seemingly undecipherable personality, Sexy Intellectual Home Video has released a two hour plus take on Reznor, his career, and the creative forces that came before, setting the stage for the movement and the musician's eventual rise to late 20th century prominence. For the most part, this talking head trip back through the whole Nine Inch Nails phenomenon is very entertaining. It even manages to avoid one of the biggest pitfalls of recent "unauthorized" DVD bios - it has the actual artist's music as part of its production value.
All throughout the '80s, acts like Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, Ministry, and Skinny Puppy pushed the boundaries of electronics and environment, moving away from pop and more toward a prolonged assault on the audience's already raw senses. Enter Trent Reznor, a young man with a massive talent and a need to apply it. Using everything that came before as a basis, he picked through the pile and drew out the elements he felt would best represent his sizable sonic ideals. He founded Nine Inch Nails, released Pretty Hate Machine, and the rest as they say is over two and a quarter hours of shorthand history.
Of course, the makers of this otherwise marvelous biography can (and will) explain that the background is just that - a light overview of the origins of Industrial before getting into the meat of Reznor's meteoric rise. And you know what? They have a point. Once we get into the behind the scenes stuff, the making-of indomitable albums like The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, Metal Machine Music really picks up. We get lots of insights, anecdotes as to the meanings of certain songs, and even Reznor's reaction to Johnny Cash's emotional reading of Spiral's seminal last track. The music business material is also interesting, since the path from indie to major label to self distributed seems to fit the Nine Inch Nails mentality perfectly. Of course, things get rushed toward the end, unusual releases like Ghosts Vol. I - IV and The Slip getting much less coverage than, say, the Broken/Fixed EPs. And as with any current career, there is much less perspective about the future as there is in digging through all that's come before. Metal Machine Music also skips around somewhat, treating Marilyn Manson as an "oops" afterthought though he is also visible in several of the clips.
But the biggest drawback here - in fact, it's the typical complaint regarding all these homemade histories - is the lack of participation from Reznor himself. On the plus side, his music is plentiful, as are video and concert clips. But aside from a few stock footage interviews with the incredibly private performer, we have to rely on second hand information and basic hearsay to learn his thoughts. While the sources seem credible (especially when you consider that two of them are easily recognizable members of the earliest incarnations of NIN), it would be amazing to hear Reznor reflect in such a detailed manner. Like those amazing Classic Albums specials where the band sits down and goes over the best records track by track, it would be fun to hear the man himself dish on such forgotten faves as "Ruiner", "Something I Can Never Have", "Perfect Drug" or all of Year Zero. While he reaches out to fans through his various online outlets and continues to carve a memorable musical legacy for himself, the lack of any real current Reznor feedback fails Metal Machine Music. This is still a wonderful primer for the entire Industrial movement. Here's hoping it sparks even more discussion. As a statement, it satisfies. As a documentary, it's not definitive.