Film Review: The El Duce Tapes

Rodney Ascher and David Lawrence’s The El Duce Tapes has much to say about art of courting controversy and the man behind a notorious personality. 

In the early 1990s, Ryan Sexton documented hours of concert footage and interviews with El Duce, lead singer of controversial rock band The Mentors. Years later filmmakers Rodney Ascher and David Lawrence piece together these VHS tapes to construct a portrait of the shock rocker…

An interesting subject choice; an early 90s shock rocker seems like it will have niche appeal. Yet the unconvinced should definitely give The El Duce Tapes a shot, as the film has a lot to say about the nature of public persona and the currency of controversy. 

The filmmakers intersperse Sexton’s footage with television and film clips, and images to help enhance the story and provide the wider context of the era. The film functions to humanise a caricature figure, and does so successfully. The El Duce Tapes does not excuse some of the very unsavoury aspects of the persona, but demystifies some of the bluster that surrounded El Duce. Particularly interesting is the insight into his family life, including the thoughts of his sister. 

During the Sexton interviews, viewers can see the mask slipping, and being readjusted. At times it is offence for controversy sakes, other times there is a latent darkness which is harder to dismiss. The narrative could have been tighter; the film loses momentum in the second half as it charts the singer’s descent. Some of the archive footage could have been trimmed without losing direction or context. 

Ascher and Lawrence make the case for the impact of El Duce on later popular culture, and the corollary is very plausible. This may be overstated at the end, nevertheless The El Duce Tapes gives viewers plenty to consider. 

The El Duce Tapes is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.