In the documentary The Sound of Scars, the story of the heavy metal band Life of Agony and its transgender lead singer makes for a fascinating, truly powerful watch.
In the early 1990s, as grunge rose as a music genre and acts like Pearl Jam and Nirvana became hugely influential, a heavy metal band from Brooklyn, New York emerged. They were called Life of Agony, and they quickly gained a devoted fanbase thanks to their intense sound and raw lyrical content. Their debut album ‘River Runs Red’ served as their breakthrough, and they were soon performing at giant festivals and across the world. However, at the peak of their career in 1997, the lead singer quit the band. What happened? And why did the band end up reforming years later?
The Sound of Scars (named after the band’s newest album) sees the three core members of Life of Agony tell the story of the band. The lead singer is Mina Caputo, who came out as transgender in 2011. She was born Keith Caputo, but, as she says early on, “there is no Keith. Keith was a lie… just a social construct.” Joey Zampella (also known as Joey Z.) is the lead guitarist and Mina’s cousin, whilst Alan Robert is the bassist. All three were shaped by numerous traumas – domestic violence, substance abuse and depression in their family lives. Yet as their debut launches them into success, new obstacles are established. Especially for Mina, who was still dealing with her gender identity. “The band was absolutely ready for that level of success – but I absolutely wasn’t,” she says in one of the film’s many candid statements.
The Sound of Scars is a retrospective band documentary similar to Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground. All three original members give interviews for the film, recounting their violent early lives in unflinching detail. Joey Z.’s dad struggled with alcoholism and abused him, whereas Alan Robert and his sister suffer from bouts of depression. Then there is Mina. She always loved feminine things, from her Princess Leia doll to the memory of her grandmother putting on makeup. But during her childhood, she had to contend with that, as well as domestic abuse and the death of her mother from a heroin overdose when she was very young. For the trio, their band was formed as an escape. However, their breakthrough came at a cost, with Mina unprepared for that level of success.
Director and editor Leigh Brooks uses concert footage to dive head-first (almost literally) into the kind of atmosphere and fanbase that Life of Agony cultivated. The scenes of mosh pits – of bodies jumping and flying all over the place – are simultaneously exhilarating, chaotic and brutal to watch. That frenetic aura is strengthened by the band’s hard-hitting songs that soundtrack most of the film. There is also an incidental score composed by Mina, with Joey providing additional parts. Furthermore, the film is well-shot, with drone shots and close-ups allowing Brooks to go beyond the usual documentary look. At the same time though, there is a lot of emotional weight.
The Sound of Scars is a film that deals with emotional agony – anger, closeted feelings and family trauma. Each member tackles their dark pasts, making a conscious decision to break away from the mould of violence and pent-up emotions. It feels like the film encompasses so much, and that is because of its wide scope. Caputo, Zampella and Robert are all given a spotlight to demonstrate the emotions that fed into the lyrics written by Alan. Later, the last act redirects into themes of reconnecting and healing. One pivotal moment sees Joey Z. travel to see his father, explaining how he has been able to come back into his son’s life. All of this is interesting if, like me, you are learning about this band for the first time.
However, at the centre of The Sound of Scars is Mina’s struggle with her gender and identity. In a film that successfully crafts great empathy for the subjects of this documentary, Mina’s journey to find self-acceptance is an especially sensitive and thought-provoking strand. Plus, it leads to perhaps the film’s most enduring image – that of her band doing what they love, inspiring their fans, accepting its lead singer for who she is and breaking what one interviewee calls “beautiful boundaries”. The Sound of Scars makes for a fascinating and truly powerful watch, even if you aren’t a diehard Life of Agony fan.
The Sound of Scars will have its UK Premiere at the 2022 BFI Flare Film Festival on 25-26 March, 2022. The film is currently available to watch on Cable VOD and Digital HD across North America.