by Elizabeth Stoddard

Perhaps you have already heard the music of the Japanese metal band X. As I attended the first SXSW screening of their documentary, We Are X, I went in unfamiliar with their work. I’d been told that the story of this band is almost beyond belief (and this is not too far wrong).

We Are X explores the history of this world-renowned band as they prepare for a series of concerts at Madison Square Garden. Kicking off with an incredible opening credits sequence, the film establishes the “visual” aspect of the group’s “visual rock” genre. Yoshiki, drummer/composer/bandleader, appears deceptively ageless despite the aches in his joints and the neck brace he now has to wear on stage after decades of headbanging.

Yoshiki is the primary storyteller in the musical documentary, and his compositions score the film. We learn that he started drumming as a sort of therapy after a limiting childhood diagnosis and anger following his father’s suicide.

The band formed in the early ’80s, when the guys were in their late teens. Despite much success, X Japan suffered astonishing strife: the band broke up in the ’90s when the lead singer got brainwashed by a cult. Toshi (the vocalist) and Yoshiki, who had been childhood friends, didn’t speak to each other for 10 years. Before the group finally reformed, two other longtime band members committed suicide.

Director Stephen Kijak (who also helmed Backstreet Boys: Show ’Em What You’re Made Of) uses news footage, old photos, and Yoshiki’s original songwriting notes to depict the band’s fraught history. We Are X never slips into maudlin territory, but recognizes — and attempts to capture — the real pain the band has had to deal with. Yoshiki, obviously haunted by the deaths of his father and friends, asserts, “I think suicide is very selfish.” The doc also confronts the powers that kept X Japan from really breaking into the American market at their peak.

We Are X is better than the most bizarre Behind the Music episode you can imagine, with high production value and attentive direction. Kijak’s inspiring film contemplates the tragedy and leaves no doubt as to the immense talent behind X Japan.

We Are X screens today, March 18, at 5:30pm at the Paramount. Yoshiki will give a performance immediately following the show.

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