Among the general population, the name Twisted Sister evokes a flash-in-the-pan band who made an MTV splash in the summer of 1984 with a pair of funny videos. They’re the band that dressed up like drag queens and sang “I Wanna Rock” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, which should disqualify them from being called one-hit wonders, but it still happens regularly. But few people realize that these songs actually came from the band’s third album.
The obscure part of their story tells that before their fifteen minutes of fame came about, Twisted Sister ruled the club scene in the New York Tri-State area for the better part of a decade. From New Jersey to Long Island, they sold out clubs for years while honing their skills and acquiring a reputation as an amazing live band, relentlessly pursuing their dreams of a record deal.
The film covers this period of the band’s history, from their origin in 1972 as a cover band influenced by the burgeoning glam scene. Heavily inspired by acts like David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and The Faces, Twisted Sister aimed to outperform the New York Dolls, who had the androgynous look but not the musical chops. The film draws most of its early narrative from guitarist/founder Jay Jay French and later from singer Dee Snider, but the filmmakers were able to track down a lot of former members and people associated with the band to get their perspective. Through every lineup change and formative event, director Andrew Horn shows the band evolving as French’s drive to succeed pushes them to improve.
By the time 1976 rolls in, Dee Snider joins the band on vocals and would quickly transform Twisted Sister, bringing in more and more outrageous costumes and taking over the songwriting duties. The band’s fame grew constantly and they only played the biggest clubs, regularly selling them out. It culminated in them selling out the 3000-seat Palladium in New York without even having a record deal. But record label executives weren’t hanging out in clubs in Long Island or New Jersey, and the band’s ego wouldn’t let them play smaller clubs in Manhattan for less money, so a deal kept eluding them. Meanwhile they had all the money (which they re-invested into the band), fame (albeit local) and girls they could hope for.
Eventually, breakthroughs in the UK (and help from Motörhead’s Lemmy) led them to record their first album “Under the Blade” for Secret Records, and finally get picked up by Atlantic Records. This period only gets a quick mention at the end, with Snider hinting that the label pushed them in a more commercial direction and away from the proto-metal they’d become known for, trading in their dedicated fan base for a larger but more fickle one. It’d be interesting to get a follow up to this movie detailing their short time at the top and their fall from the public eye that led to disbanding in 1989 (the band reformed in 2001 and is currently on a farewell tour following the passing of drummer A.J. Pero)
The movie leaves no stone unturned in chronicling the rise of Twisted Sister. All members, present and past, managers, A&R reps, fans and friends contribute to the story, and no one shies away from the mistakes that were made along the way. At 134 minutes, the film sometimes gets bogged down a bit with too much details, but every piece of interview brings an interesting fact that helps build a portrait of this band. The amount of video footage included is also amazing for a club band in the 70’s.
For anyone who thinks that being a musician is an easy job where you just show up 2 hours a night and have fun, it’s a sobering expose of the countless hours (years) of work put in by bands all around the world in pursuit of the opportunity to ply their craft. We knew a part of Twisted Sister’s story but this is the more interesting tale where they were legends before they even made it to the top. This is the story of a band that never stopped believing in themselves and never gave up its dreams of success, a band that always gave everything they had whenever they stepped on a stage, big or small. They are Twisted Fucking Sister.
The film is out on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, and digital formats, with an included 2 hours of bonus material and director commentary.
He's also a regular contributor at the very rad site Montreal Rampage