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Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story

Paramount // R // January 25, 2005
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted January 21, 2005 | E-mail the Author

I've never really felt too guilty about my so-called guilty pleasures, but I'm particularly happy to say that I was a huge Def Leppard fan when I was younger. Sure, the subject matter of the songs off their classic albums High n' Dry, Pyromania and Hysteria was nonsense, but the songs were ridiculously catchy and deceptively complex in their use of studio technology, musical technique and layered playing.

Now that Def Leppard have cooled a bit in their celebrity, the thing that probably sticks out most in the public's mind is the string of tragedies that followed the band through their search for the perfect bubblegum-rock riff. That's the aspect of the band that VH1 had in mind when they produced Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story. The film falls prey to a lot of TV movie cliches and at times is nothing more than a montage of moments from the band's first decade, but there's still something enjoyable about the film.

Hysteria kicks off in the industrial town of Sheffield, England, where there's not much in any teenager's future beyond a factory job and a seat at the local pub. Young Joe Elliott (Orlando Seale), however, already has dreams that take him much further than that: Surrounded by Ziggy Stardust posters, we see him designing album covers and tickets for an imaginary rock band called "Deaf Leopard." When he runs into a guitar-toting fellow dreamer named Pete Willis (Nick Bagnall) he arranges an audition. At the audition Joe impresses no one with his stuttery guitar playing but when he starts to howl along, the gathered bandmates look at each other in wonder.

What's funny about a moment like this is that, to an outsider, it's tough to tell if they like what they hear or not. Ignoring the fact that it's not the real Elliott's voice on the soundtrack, the singer has never been known for having a particularly melodious voice. He's more of a classic shrieker, a throat-shredding vocalist in the vein of Bon Scott and Brian Johnson. So the "Purple Haze" hollering here isn't necessarily the kind of thing that would make you sit up and take notice. But it does have that effect on the bandmates, and he's in. He excitedly shows them his homemade Deaf Leopard posters, which are quickly altered (to more closely resemble the spelling of Led Zeppelin, perhaps?), and we're on our way.

The early scenes have a scrappy charm, even though they're a bit rushed. The combination of bad wigs, thick accents, and the fact that the Leps are all the same height makes it seem like we're watching Hobbits rock out. And their childish enthusiasm at this point is infectious.

Fans (like me) who read Def Leppard's official biography "Animal Instinct" will recognize many of the moments in the film from the book. In fact, the film takes details from the book and builds them into key moments. For example, according to one minuscule passage in the book, original Drummer Tony Kenning quit the band to spend more time with his girlfriend. In the movie, this translates into Kenning needing to mention his girlfriend every other second, ditch practice to see her, and, eventually, quit with her standing behind him, arms crossed and toe-tapping. It's a funny way to distill the messiness of real life: Take bits of the truth and extrapolate whole characters out of them.

Kenning's departure from the band solidifies the first major line-up: Elliott, Willis, Steve Clark, Rick Savage and Rick Allen. The film sort of zooms through the band's growing popularity with their first two albums, and quickly finds Willis drinking his way out of the gig. The storytelling is rushed: They'll be friends in one scene, then Willis throws a fit in the next, and then he's out in the next. This is definitely the Cliff's Notes version of what was probably the result of a lot of drunken arguing and fighting.

It also sets off the film's theme of practically every scene ending with someone storming out of the room yelling "That's it! I'm quitting the band!" Apparently Def Leppard's career has been a bigger bitch-fest than a bunch of drag queens sharing one make-up mirror, only with more outrageous wigs.

The major event that caused the film to be made in the first place is Rick Allen's 1984 car accident (which is used as something of a framing device early on.) True to the "Animal Instinct" telling of the story, Allen (played by Tat Whalley), drugged-up and driving aggressively, loses control of his car while playing cat-and-mouse with another driver tormenting him. After the car comes to a very violent end in the middle of a field, Allen stands up, dazed and confused, and discovers that he's lost his left arm. The accident itself is surprisingly gruesome and the immediate aftermath is pretty upsetting. When Allen, all of 21 years old, looks at his rescuers and says "but... I'm a drummer," it's as emotionally grueling as this film gets.

Much of the film's ninety-minute running time from this point on involves the twin tragedies of Def Leppard: Allen's slow, complex recovery that eventually found him redesigning his drum kit to allow him to continue with the band even though he only has one arm, and Steve Clark's slow, grim descent into complete alcoholic oblivion.

Clark (Karl Geary) starts the story off vomiting from nerves but eventually finds that his stagefright is cured by the rush of playing live. The film tries to sell us some major family issues for Clark but it's too rushed to register as real drama. Instead, it falls to Geary to add what depth there is and he delivers. He has the gaunt look for the part, but he also does manage to convey a sort of self-loathing. When Clark teams up for massive amounts of drinking with post-Willis bandmate Phil Collen (Esteban Powell), it's obvious that he takes his booze more seriously than his buddy. Clark and Collen (who call themselves the "Terror Twins") pass out on the street and vomit in cars (and share something of a homoerotic vibe) but Clark can't quite pull it together off-stage. (The film ends before Clark's 1991 death, which is mentioned in the end credits.)

The other important thread through the film is the production innovation of "Mutt" Lange, the producer-guru who whipped the Leppard sound into shape for their signature albums and helped turn them into super-stars. As played by Anthony Michael Hall, Lange resembles none other than platinum producer Bruce Dickinson, Christopher Walken's cowbell-obsessed Saturday Night Live character. His sequences are odd, but they do include one perfect moment: When recording classic power-ballad "Bringin' On The Heartbreak," Lange instructs Elliott to sing the chorus higher, above the singers protests that he can't do it. When he plays back the finished product (which mixes several different vocal takes into one perfectly sublime metal moment) the lesson isn't anything as mundane as "You can do anything you put your mind to" positivity, but rather "With my crazy production techniques you can sound better than you ever imagined." THAT's the Def Leppard story.

The full-frame video is ok, if a bit drab. The concerts are a little embarrassing (a mix of small crowds of extras intercut with stock footage from real Def Leppard shows) but overall the transfer is fine. It looks like a typical TV movie.

The Dolby Digital soundtrack is fairly well done. The dialog is clear, even though the accents are often thick, and the music sounds good. A good deal of Def Leppard's actual music is used in the film and, given that the production is so precise and sophisticated, it better sound good.

Nothing. This is a major disappointment. I don't know what the rights issues are, but VH1 could have put together a killer set including other documentary pieces they've produced on the band, including episodes of Storytellers and Behind the Music. Oh well.

Not world-class filmmaking by any stretch, Hysteria succeeds in being a fun watch thanks to both intentional and unintentional pluses. At times it's goofily winning in its cliched incompetence, other times it actually puts forward quality acting and drama. As an added bonus, it's always fun to see a favorite musician reinterpreted. In these days of constant celebrity autopsy, few rock bands can boast the level of melodrama of the Lep, and Hysteria pours it on liberally.

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