“She was the first artist that told me, ‘F*** MTV. We can do this without them’.” Jonas Åkerlund is recalling the moment he first worked with Lady Gaga. The veteran promo director responsible for some of the most iconic, provocative and cutting-edge videos of the last 30 years – The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up, Madonna’s Ray of Light, Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful and Primal Scream’s Country Girl are all his – was, he says, on the verge of giving up when Gaga approached him to do the video for her 2009 hit Paparazzi. “Before that I was always in the hands of MTV and MTV was not good. They dictated the format and they cut up your stuff and they censored your stuff. They decided if the audience was going to see it or not. Now, with YouTube, the audience decides. You can make something that is 20 minutes long or one minute long. There are no rules and that suited me much better. With Gaga we really took advantage of that. We exploded into that. We said, ‘OK, we can do anything we want’. She made it fun again.”
Åkerlund has been at the promo game for a long time. He started in his native Sweden in the late 1980s, got his big break a decade later courtesy of Madonna – “She’s my art mother!” he says – and as the above anecdote about Lady Gaga illustrates, he’s presided over the format’s rebirth as a vital way for artists to say whatever they want directly to the world. When Åkerlund collaborated with Russian art collective Pussy Riot on their anti-Trump protest song Make America Great Again, for instance, the video he shot for them – a pastiche of a Hollywood dystopian sci-fi film intercut with real news footage – was seen by millions … although as he admits, he isn’t sure if its target was one of them.
He’s also made films, of course, most notably the 2002 cult indie movie Spun – a scuzzy, adrenalised, pre-Breaking Bad exploration of the methamphetamine epidemic sweeping America.
More recently there’s been the graphic novel adaptation Polar, released on Netflix. But it’s his other new film, Lords of Chaos, that he’s on the phone from London to discuss. It dramatises the bizarre true story behind the Scandinavian black metal music scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period when some of its more dedicated followers generated headlines, burning down churches and committing homicide. The film explores the scene by framing it as a biopic of the Norwegian band Mayhem, whose rise and fall it tracks via its murdered co-founder and guitarist Øystein Aarseth, aka Euronymous (Rory Culkin).
Though Lords of Chaos is based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, it’s a scene Åkerlund already knew pretty well. In his previous (short-lived) career as a musician in the early 1980s, he was briefly the drummer for the Swedish death-metal band Bathory, who helped birth the scene, but who had nothing to do with the more extreme direction Mayhem took it in when it spread to Norway.
Did their paths ever cross? “Not really,” says Åkerlund. “We were a few years ahead of them and then I left the scene to start making films. But even after I left the scene I had a lot of friends who were still involved and knew everyone else. I did meet Pelle many times in Sweden,” he adds, referring to Mayhem’s first singer, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the head – an act captured for posterity by Euronymous, whom the film shows taking a photograph of the body (Pelle is played in the film by Jack Kilmer, son of actor Val Kilmer).
“I remember when Pelle committed suicide,” says Åkerlund. “It was a shocker. I also remember very clearly being in Los Angeles working and seeing a story about the church burnings and knowing who was responsible and going: ‘Wow! So that’s happening now?’
It was a while before they got caught, but it felt like everybody knew who was doing it except the police.”
In Lords of Chaos – which starts with the disclaimer, “Based on truth and lies… and what really happened” – the film attributes the escalation in violence to Pelle’s replacement in Mahyem. This is Varg (Emory Cohen), a young black-metal fan whom Euronymous initially humiliates by dismissing as a poseur, but who then reinvents himself as the most extreme member of their circle, little realising that Euronymous is more of a skilled salesman than a true believer.
“It’s still hard to understand their motivations,” says Åkerlund.
That’s also partly what’s disturbing about the film, which feels quite timely in its presentation of unbalanced young men responding to their own perceived disenfranchisement by cobbling together any radical belief system that suits their twisted worldview.
But Åkerlund has also made a bold choice to convey the confusion of the times by telling the story in typically outré fashion. He fills the film with scabrous humour, extreme imagery and irony-laden narration – as well as unsettling moments of tenderness and prolonged bouts of grim violence that are forensic in their fidelity to the real-life source material (Åkerlund consulted crime reports from the original investigation).
“To go as deep inside and try and present a portrait of the relationships between these kids is risky,” confirms the filmmaker. “I’m not saying this is exactly how they were and this is exactly what they did. I’m saying this is my perspective and my belief that there must have been some humour in their lives, there must have been some emotions in there, there must have been moments when they looked at each other and wondered what the f*** was going on. They couldn’t just be young machines that were just evil.”
That’s a more nuanced perspective than those with a dated view of music video directors and their work are liable to give Åkerlund or the film credit for. At this stage in his career, though, he’s not about to start worrying about legitimacy, especially when it comes to music videos.
“I still think it’s one of the most free forms of filmmaking there is so I’m going to keep doing it until I don’t feel I have anything more to give.”■
Lords of Chaos is on selected release from 29 March