Dream Deceivers perfectly captures one of the stranger times in the history of popular music. The film concerns itself with the 1990 “subliminal messages” civil trial of Judas Priest in a Nevada courtroom. The charges stemmed from an incident that happened five years earlier when two teenagers, Ray Bellknap and James Vance, formed a suicide pact after hours of listening to Judas Priest and consuming drugs and alcohol. Bellknap pointed a gun at his chin, pulled the trigger, and died instantly. Vance survived but with severe facial injuries. The families then sued the British heavy metal band, claiming that subliminal messages in the song “Better By You, Better Than Me”, specifically a voice saying, “Do it”!
The Judas Priest trial wasn’t the only of its kind. Four years earlier, another teen had committed suicide after apparently listening to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” (a song about alcohol abuse) and the family had also sued. In both instances the cases were dismissed, but talk about backwards masking and subliminal messages during the era was rife. Although rock music itself had long been targeted as the music of the devil, heavy metal has drawn equally heavy fire for its allegedly satanic subliminal codes.
And perhaps not without reason. The music dances with rebellion and danger at every turn, and the imagery often leans toward the darker elements of humankind. Watching Dream Decievers, one of the remarkable things that unfolds is how the film depicts the commonalities of heavy metal’s performers and its fans. The men who formed Judas Priest grew up in industrial England, specifically Birmingham, where hope was limited. Watching this, you realize that Glenn Tipton and Rob Halford could just as easily have wound up in the same situation as Bellknap and Vance.
But this isn’t a film about Judas Priest. The story is about relationships and the truth about depression, social misconduct, and families that can never quite function at what most people would consider a functional level. What is that truth? That we’re capable of falling short, that our lives can end up swinging either in the direction of these two young men or in the direction followed by the men in Judas Priest. Of course most will land somewhere in between if we are lucky.
Filmmaker David Van Taylor doesn’t make any of these conclusions for us. Instead, he allows us to watch the horrible pain both the Bellknap and Vance families experience as well as the real empathy the members of Judas Priest seem to hold for two young men who were terribly confused and hopeless. Along the way we meet with other young men who are frustrated with their lives, unsure of where to go in an America that touts high morals but offers easy divorce and access to vice.
The members of Priest are eventually relieved of any responsibility in the case, though history would show that the case itself appears to have exacted a price on the band. Halford would leave the band not too long after the trial and the heavy metal gods would many years incapable of reaching the heights they had with the capable frontman. Vance suffered from further depression after his suicide attempt and eventually died from causes not directly related to the shooting.
We continue to see cases such as this continuing to crop up, though the answer remains the same. In the end, we are the only ones responsible for our actions.
Dream Deceivers does look dated but it is a fiercely accurate portrait of the time in which it was made and music clearances have finally allowed it to become available on DVD. Director David Van Taylor is candid about his motivations and experiences in the bonus material included—excerpts of interviews which take place 25 years apart. These interviews are fascinating and illuminating and as interesting as anything in the body of the film itself. Still, viewers will have to come to their own conclusions.