Back in the ’80s, Iron Maiden did things the hard way. Between 1983 and 1989, they played nearly 600 shows, appearing in any country that would have them. Adding the fact that they put out seven studio albums during that decade, it was a schedule so rigorous that for a popular band to pull it off, whether in the ’80s or in this day and age, is practically unthinkable. And indeed, it nearly did Iron Maiden in, with guitarist Adrian Smith leaving the band in 1989, lead singer Bruce Dickinson following suit four years later, and the rest of the band forced to slog out the entire ’90s, putting out a series of records that ranged from middling to just plain uninspired.
However, all that work they did in the ’80s wasn’t for naught, as the constant album/ tour/ album/ tour cycle cemented a worldwide fanbase like no other. Nearly a quarter century after their legendary, epic World Slavery Tour, Iron Maiden, with Dickinson and Smith back in the fold, found themselves more popular than ever, with an entirely new generation of fans eager to see and hear the metal greats.
Of course, with each band member now in their 50s, there’s no chance of them taking their show to anywhere near as many cities as they did 25 years ago, but that didn’t mean the crafty old blokes weren’t up for another challenge. As it so happened, 2008’s triumphant Somewhere Back in Time world tour began as a series of nutty ideas.
Why not recreate the Egyptian-themed World Slavery stage and bring out some rarely-performed ’80s classics as a treat for fans old and new? Why not travel to countries they had either not played in a very long time, or better yet, places they’ve never played before? Why not customize a Boeing 757 so it could transport the band, the 70 member crew, and all the gear from country to country? Why not play 23 shows on five continents in 45 days? Why not have your lead singer, a fully licensed pilot, captain the plane? Why not deck the plane out in the coolest paint job ever? And why not bring a gobsmacked Canadian film crew to document the whole shebang?
The end result is Flight 666, so named after the plane’s facetious flight call, an excellent documentary that examines the inner workings of such a monumental tour, the band, their fans, and best of all, the extraordinary relationship between the two. Roping in the filmmaking team of Sam Dunn and Scott McFadyen was an especially inspired move.
Usually Iron Maiden likes to do things in-house, whether it’s directing concert DVDs or assembling documentaries, so it’s a refreshing change to have a couple of outsiders offer their perspective for a change. Plus Dunn and McFadyen are no slouches, either, having directed a pair of superb studies of the metal genre in 2005’s Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and 2008’s Global Metal, and aside from Dunn’s humble narration at the beginning, they wisely sit back and let their subjects take over the film.
The 112-minute film often seems to feel as much as a whirlwind as the actual tour must have been, but never is there a dull moment, and it was an especially smart move to give viewers a bit of a breather by offering extended clips of each of the concert’s songs interspersed between the travel footage and interviews. The minutiae of the tour is fascinating, from the initial preparation, customizing, and loading if the plane (dubbed “Ed Force One” after the band’s ubiquitous mascot), to the trepidation over the massive, hand-made wooden stage rig in Mumbai, India, to a potentially volatile environment in Bogotá, Colombia. And as any tour manager will tell you, there are always the variables that threaten to toss a spanner or two into the works, such as drummer Nicko McBrain’s freak golfing injury hours before a show in Costa Rica, a nasty stomach virus that forces the crew to station buckets offstage for the queasy band members, and Dickinson’s problems with the thin, high altitude air in Chile.
Best of all, though, are the glimpses of the fans. We meet a minister in Brazil who not only incorporates Iron Maiden’s lyrical themes into his sermons, but boasts 160 Maiden tattoos on his body. We see the elation of the Mumbai crowd as the band plays the opening notes of their first-ever show in the massive city. We witness the hysteria over Iron Maiden in South America that forces the easygoing, sightseeing band to hide out in their hotels for days. Even celebrities lingering backstage in Los Angeles like Tom Morello, Lars Ulrich, and pro wrestler Chris Jericho are reduced to gushing fanboys. And in the film’s most lasting image, we see a Costa Rican fan weeping tears of joy because he was lucky enough to catch McBrain’s drumstick.
The actual live concert footage is outstanding. A major sticking point with past Iron Maiden concert DVDs has been the rather choppy editing style of bassist/band leader Steve Harris, but Dunn and McFadyen do a tremendous job here. It’s all very well shot, beautifully at times, with multiple camera angles (including lots of clever shots of McBrain, who is always hidden behind his monstrous kit) that focus not only on the musicians but the crazed fans who, no matter what country they’re from, recite every lyric with fervor.
Performance-wise, the band’s more relaxed schedule benefits them immensely; while the 2009 versions of the classic tracks aren’t as incendiary as the versions heard on 1985’s double live masterpiece Live After Death, anyone who saw Iron Maiden in the ’80s (yours truly included) will tell you they sound as good today as they ever have, the film’s triumphant performance of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is living proof.
While the DVD’s extras are slim, the bonus disc of the concert’s complete, 16 song set is a very welcome addition. Some might complain that having each song filmed in a different locale makes for a somewhat disjointed viewing experience overall, but the performances and the ecstatic reactions from India, to Australia, to Japan, to Central and South America, to Canada are all essentially the same the world over. Iron Maiden’s fans adore their heroes, and the band goes above and beyond for them, time and again.