Cuban thrash metal band Zeus in the documentary “Los Ultimos Frikis.” Photos courtesy of Frank Publicity

“They’re the most popular heavy metal band that you’ve never heard of” is how Portland-born filmmaker Nicholas Brennan describes Zeus, the venerable Cuban rockers who are the subject of his latest film.

The 75-minute documentary “Los Ultimos Frikis,” which had its world premiere at the DOC NYC Film Festival this month, follows the aging members of the thrash metal band as they prepare to embark on a government-sponsored nationwide tour in celebration of their 25th anniversary. For Brennan, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, a chance encounter with the band more than 10 years ago during a study-abroad trip from NYU Tisch School of the Arts began a connection with roots in his teen years in Maine.

“I was in Cuba and got invited along to a rock concert at a Havana venue (featured, practically falling down, in the film) called Maxim Rock,” said Brennan, who previously premiered a short film about the band, “Hard Rock Havana,” at Portland Phoenix’s film festival in 2009. “I felt like I was transported back to Portland and places like the State Theatre. It felt like I was watching one of the punk bands from the early 2000s. The only difference was I was in Havana, Cuba, and there were interior ministry types lining the outside of the theater. It was familiar, but also quite different.”

That’s essentially the story of Zeus, whose formation in the 1980s was in loud defiance to then Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s ban on Western influences (very especially including heavy metal). In the film, Zeus’ leather-lunged frontman, Diony Arce, relates how he and his fellow “frikis” would dive into the ocean to wait out the cops who’d come to shut down their impromptu concerts and listening parties, often for hours. Arce himself was jailed for six years during Zeus’ (and Castro’s) reign, something that the older and cagier members of the band speak of only obliquely in Brennan’s fascinating and insightful film (scored by a former member of Slayer, the Cuban-American former refugee Steve Lombardo).

Born in Portland, filmmaker Nicholas Brennan first encountered Zeus while on a study-abroad trip to Cuba.

Several times during the movie, separate members tell Brennan to stop filming, just as conversations begin to circle to certain topics, a telling reminder that Zeus’ marginally accepted presence on the island still isn’t without very real risk. “Growing up as artists in Cuba, you learn to stay aware of what you can and can’t say,” Brennan said. “For them, their music is where they say what they want to say.”

And that’s what’s so intriguing about “Los Ultimos Frikis,” as we watch the middle-aged men who’ve dedicated their lives to music still forced to navigate not just the traditional real-life concerns of aging rockers, but the forced irony of playing inherently rebellious music in a repressive regime. Because while Brennan notes that Zeus’ hard-driving songs aren’t especially political in their specifics (“There’s a different documentary to be made about a more overtly political band in Cuba,” he said), this is rock and roll, whose aggressive boundary-pushing has faced plenty of opposition even in countries like America where the government is less likely to drag you to jail for your lyrics.


And while Zeus is tacitly approved by Cuba’s Agency Of Rock (yes, that’s just what it sounds like), that doesn’t mean that they’re living in luxury – or even with respect. Shrinking crowds, aging fans, wives, children and responsibilities, those are all staples of rockumentaries like “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.” But, as we watch the hopeful members of Zeus board a tour bus for their government-approved anniversary tour, Brennan’s camera catches just how little regard they’re actually held in by the officials who’ve co-opted their initial rebelliousness. One band member says, looking back over his career after a series of disappointments on their would-be celebration tour, that he feels as if his government has made a fool of him. Said Brennan, “They felt forgotten, like local officials would have been happier for them not to play.”

But Zeus continues to play, the band having just celebrated its 30th anniversary of rocking their island home with a sold-out concert in Havana, and lead singer Arce – once imprisoned for his dedication to his music – improbably being named the head of the Agency of Rock. For Brennan, Zeus’ story is a uniquely Cuban take on the rock-and-roll story, one that he hopes to bring full circle back to Maine in 2020. Having taken “Los Ultimos Frikis” to Havana, where the members of Zeus greeted it, and him, warmly, Brennan said, “Really, at the heart of this story is me growing up in the Maine rock community. That’s what drew me to these guys in the first place.”

So keep an eye out for “Los Ultimos Frikis” in the coming year – if the rock gods have any say in it, perhaps at the State Theatre, where Nicholas Brennan’s own rock journey began.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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