For heavy metal singer Randy Blythe, there are mixed emotions attached to the release of a new documentary about his band, Lamb of God.
“As the Palaces Burn” tells the story of a young fan who died after falling from the band’s stage during a 2010 concert in Prague, Czech Republic, and Blythe’s unexpected arrest and trial in the Czech Republic for manslaughter more than a year later.
“It’s a hard movie for me to watch,” says Blythe of the film, which opens at select theaters nationwide on Thursday.
At a recent stop in Los Angeles, Blythe is backstage at the Hollywood Palladium, another night on the road and business as usual for a working heavy metal band.
Crew and band members wander in and out until Blythe locks the door to any more interruptions. He speaks with gravity not just of his own ordeal but about the death of a young fan. “It’s not a movie to me,” he says. “It’s my life.”
Directed by Don Argott, “As the Palaces Burn” joins a long tradition of rock documentaries that take an unexpected turn into darker territory during production. The most infamous prototype is “Gimme Shelter,” the 1970 Rolling Stones film that inadvertently captured the violence, madness and death of a free concert at Altamont Speedway.
Lamb of God’s documentary was planned as a probing look at some of the band’s fans during its 2012 world tour, with stops in India, Colombia, Israel and Europe. The camera crew had already gone home when Blythe was arrested in Prague, accused of causing the death of 19-year-old Daniel Nosek, after allegedly being pushed from the stage by the singer.
“It’s irony at its heights,” Blythe says of his arrest as the band was trying to celebrate its fans in a film. He spent five weeks in a Czech prison, where few inmates or guards spoke English, while his lawyers negotiated his release on bail. He returned home to Richmond, Va., but always intended to fly back to Prague for trial.
He was acquitted by a three-judge panel in March 2013.
Argott’s crew was back with Blythe during his time at home and during the trial, this time documenting a moment of real jeopardy for the singer and the band’s career. As it happened, Argott was a filmmaker with genuine documentary experience beyond live music, with the acclaimed films “Last Days Here” (2011) and “Rock School” (2005) on his résumé.
By then, Blythe had established real trust with the director at an extremely vulnerable, uncertain time.
“I was in prison, getting out of prison, and going through the trial,” recalls Blythe, 42. “Had the director not been a friend of mine, I would have shut him out, physically and emotionally. It was a very serious situation.
“We went to the mountains and filmed, but a lot of time we just sat there and talked. He’s my buddy.”
Blythe says he understood the pain of the teen’s family, who lost their son. Years before, Blythe and his first wife lost a newborn girl, a tragedy that he suspects contributed to his drinking problems. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” says the singer, who has been sober for three years.
Despite the language barrier, Blythe did meet with the family for a meaningful conversation. “They treated me with the utmost respect. They never talked bad about me in the press,” he says. “They want to know what happened to their kid. Wouldn’t you?
“What’s important about our movie is that it comes to a positive resolution. And it treated the family of this young man, Daniel, with respect and his memory with respect. It was hugely important that he not get lost in all this.”
What Blythe was accused of happened amid a common nightly ritual at metal and punk shows around the world, as scattered fans climb stages and then dive back into the swirling crowd. Sometimes fans are shoved back by security or band members. Rarely is anyone seriously injured.
Moshing and stage-diving provide fans a sense of brutal euphoria and release that Blythe still identifies with. Long before he sang with Lamb of God, Blythe’s passion for loud-fast music began as a teenage punk with a green mohawk obsessed with Bad Brains and Black Flag. His comfort zone became the mosh pit, and he proudly wears years of battle scars.
“I’ve had black eyes, loose teeth, a broken nose, all that stuff. I grew up in the punk rock scene,” he says, then points at his skull. “44 stitches. My forehead is actually uneven right there. That was in ’98, I believe, at the Milwaukee Metal Fest.
“I did a stage dive and no one caught me. I got up and I was all dizzy. I ran my fingers across my head and it was blood. This guy looked at me and went, ‘Ah, dude, I can see your skull! Can we take a picture?’”
That side of metal culture was difficult to explain in a Prague courtroom.
With Lamb of God now off the road, Blythe is working on a book about the ordeal under the working title “Dark Days,” which he hopes to finish in time for a summer release.
“We’re a heavy metal band,” Blythe says. “There’s a young man who’s dead. That I don’t look at as creative fodder. I’m writing a book of my experience of going through this stuff, but it’s about a lot more than just that. It’s about life. Daniel, who is dead, is not some kind of muse for me. He’s dead. It sucks.”