Film Review: Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends)

Moving account of the little-known band at Paris' Bataclan concert hall the night of the terror attack, as the group emotionally prepares to return to the city. Actor Colin Hanks' second documentary feature shows a filmmaker of both empathy and skill.
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Given his prolific acting career, Colin Hanks certainly doesn't need that well-known font of fame and riches, documentary filmmaking, as a backup career. Yet, as he proved with 2015's All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records and does again with Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends), he's no dilettante and also no mere craftsman but, rather, a director of skill and empathy. With great naturalness, he keys in on the spot where popular culture intersects with and deeply affects lives in a way belying the superficial appeal of a TV show, movie, videogame, cereal mascot, record-store chain or successful if unheralded working-class band you never heard of but with a devoted following.

Eagles of Death Metal—an in-joke moniker for a straight-ahead rock band that does not, in fact, play the heavy-metal subgenre in its name—was formed in Palm Desert, California, in 1998, and made a living for 17 years before becoming indelibly associated with the Islamic-fundamentalist terror attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015. It was the band playing the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 people were killed and hundreds wounded as part of a synchronized strike on the city. The documentary's narrative spine is EDOM preparing to return to Paris three months later, to play another venue there as a symbol of resilience in face of…I know "evil" sounds melodramatic, and I understand intellectually that the fundamentalists think they're doing God's will, but knowingly and wantonly murdering people whose beliefs they didn't know, some of whom were likely fellow Muslims…yeaaah, I think "evil" fits.

As the documentary relates, the band is essentially singer-songwriter-guitarist Jesse Hughes and his entrepreneurial childhood friend, drummer-producer Joshua Homme, with a revolving reperatory company of musicians. Jesse—a dead ringer for "WKRP in Cincinnati" star Howard Hesseman—grew up a classic outsider, bullied throughout high school until being rescued one night by the imposing Joshua, who describes Jesse as an "idiosyncratic, high-IQ nutball." The two men developed what seems an almost codependent relationship that even they remark upon. But it's poignant and admirable that guys in such a macho profession are unafraid to articulate the specifics of the bond between them, like how Jesse loves to bust Joshua's chops since he knows it amuses Joshua, and that Joshua is one of those guys who when he smiles, says Jesse, "it's like the sun shines a little bit warmer."

He really speaks like that, and though his onstage "Are you ready to be possessed by the spirit and rock ’n’ roll?!" shtick is so corny it's almost retro, Jesse, judging from his offstage comments, sincerely believes in music's redemptive power. Combined with his somewhat disconcerting religious zeal, it's clear the shtick is real for him and not empty stagecraft. U2 front man Bono—interviewed here after having granted Eagles of Death Metal a couple songs at his own band's Paris makeup concert—says that while all his instincts prevent him from saying a line as bald as "Are you ready to rock and roll?!," he was relieved and gratified when Jesse boomed, "Is everybody here having a good time?" when EDOM came onstage with them.

Hanks—a longtime friend of Jesse and Joshua's—also managed to wrangle several survivors of the horrific shooting, who in the documentary's most moving and chilling segment give an oral-history timeline of the events of that night. Even if the rest of the film were not as intriguing, affecting and even funny as it is, hearing a direct account by Jesse, his bandmates (a guilt-ridden Joshua was back home in California that night, awaiting the birth of his child), and fans Nicolas Carpentier, Sandrine Correia, Arthur Dénouveaux, Patricia le Gall, Emile Masseron and Scotty Schuder is a "Never forget" testament as visceral as a horror movie. Vive la Hanks.

Click here for cast and crew information. Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends) premieres on HBO on Feb. 13.