Nicholas Brennan's New Documentary Taps Into the Human Side of Heavy Metal in Cuba

Friday, Nov 8, 2019

Diony Arce

Diony Arce of Zeus

At the height of his band’s success, lead singer Diony Arce sat locked in a Cuban prison cell. Zeus, the frontman’s legendary heavy metal group, represented a rebellious voice that Fidel Castro’s 1980s government aimed to cut the cord on. For “frikis” (or freaks) like Diony, dissent alone was cause enough to be put away for years at a time. 

Decades later, Zeus is now supported by the Communist government through the Ministry of Culture’s Agency of Rock. Their salaries are paid for by the Cuban government, as is their 25th anniversary tour across the island. But is anyone still listening, or has a new generation moved on to something more commercial? Nonconformity is often the way of the young—how does it look on aging metalheads?

Filmmaker Nicholas Brennan (’10, Kanbar Film and TV) was first introduced to the Cuban metal scene during a three-month Tisch study abroad program. Inside the walls of Maxim Rock, where the Agency of Rock is headquartered, Brennan was transported back to his teenage years as a metal aficionado in Maine. But that’s where the commonalities end, and where Brennan’s exploration begins. Over the last decade the filmmaker has hopped between Cuba and his home in New York to tell the story of the Caribbean’s mythical metal band—a once government-suppressed and now government-sanctioned operation.

Using Zeus’ 25th anniversary tour as the backdrop, Brennan weaves an intimate story of struggle and persistence that is as much a human story as it is a heavy metal one. The result: Los Últimos Frikis, or, The Last Freaks. The film premieres at DOC NYC Sunday, Nov. 10.

I’ve been told that Cuba was not your first study abroad choice while at NYU, and that this film may very well not exist without some serendipity.

Nicholas Brennan: [Laughs] The real truth is that I showed up five minutes late to my interview with the BBC. The Brits have absolutely no patience for someone who shows up a few minutes late to an interview, all excuses be damned. So, as fate definitely would have it, Havana would be the one.

Tell me about the first time you were introduced to Zeus and the lead singer Diony. What was that interaction like?

NB: The Cuban co-director I was working with was filming these really awful electronica concerts, and I would shoot for him and he would shoot for me. I was like, “What is this garbage you’re making me film?” And he asked, “What do you listen to?” I said, “Well I grew up drumming and I’m a big fan of rock-and-roll and heavy metal.” And he says, “You gotta’ come to my house on Saturday.”

He invited me, and he lives right down the street from Maxim Rock (the venue heavily featured in the film). Walking into the show that Saturday night, Zeus was performing, and it felt like I was transformed into being a high school kid in Portland, Maine, where you see this amazing band onstage, they’re amazing musicians, there are flashing lights. It all felt quite familiar after spending several months in a place that often felt unfamiliar. Then you look around a bit and you see the Che Guevara tattoos, and the Ministry of Interior types sitting outside, and you say, “Oh, wait, what’s going on here…”

...That was really the spark. That feeling of both familiarity but also awareness of the immense layers of difference between the experience of the band onstage down there and the bands onstage that I grew up with. At that point I ended up making my thesis project for the Cuba program, which was a 10-minute short called Hard Rock Havana that told the quick story of these guys. I felt at that time that we were only scratching the surface of a story that a lot of people would be inspired by and would really appreciate. 

[Hard Rock Havana] played at Tribeca in 2010, and it opened up the opportunity to tell the bigger story of the band. That was also thanks to NYU and the Richard Vague Production Fund, which we got in 2011 to start the feature. 

The 25th anniversary tour is a major story arc in Los Ultimos Frikis, but the band was plagued by technical issues and bad bookings. What did you observe about these characters in those intimate moments, during the letdowns?

NB: The tour was an important moment in both the band’s life and history and also in the process of filmmaking. We spent several weeks on the road together and you get a sense of each individual and the way they deal with both the immense happiness and success of the opportunity to tour… but also the disappointments. You started to see the very blunt truth-telling of Hansel, the guitarist, who tells us on the tour, “Every form of music has its own moment of splendour, and also its moment of being forgotten. We have to figure out how to reinvent ourselves.” He had that sober, smart, reflective approach to it.

With Diony, you feel the emotional weight of the excitement of the best moments, and also the real heartbreak, particularly at the end of the tour. They show up at this venue, there’s this great excitement to play, and they spend several hours there figuring out that no one was gonna’ care enough to show up.

Tie together for me the shooting process over the last decade. Did you ever take a break from filming?

NB: We never really stopped shooting. Particularly in the heavy production parts of the film, I spent a lot of time bouncing between New York and Havana. It of course got easier [to travel to Cuba], and now has returned to being slightly difficult in recent years. But we were always filming and continuing to tell this story over the course of the 10 years. And then the final concert scene was one of the last things I filmed last year, because for a while the film didn’t have that ending. 

Zeus is a fiercely independent-minded group, but they only survive because they are state-sponsored. How did these naturally rebellious voices reconcile their anti-establishment past with the modern reality?

NB: The choice that each of the guys made is to stay in Cuba. A lot of the members of Zeus over the 30 years actually no longer live in Cuba. They’ve all left to pursue life outside of the island. Each of these guys, for their own reasons and interests and ambitions, has stayed and decided to keep building their lives there.

I think what you see is the impact and challenge of that. What I wanted to do was bring people into the human experience of living down there in a nuanced and interesting way. Each of the band members live in a different strata of society, from the guitarist who lives quite well to the drummer who obviously goes through significant struggles. My hope for the project was to open a window of understanding into the diversity of experience.