THE EL DUCE TAPES
Starring: Eldon Hoke, Ryan Sexton, Steve Broy, Annetta Hoke, and Eric Carlson
Directors: Rodney Ascher, David Lawrence, and Ryan Sexton
I guess I hate myself…
A scum-rock icon receives a haunting and darkly hilarious documentary treatment in The El Duce Tapes. In the early ’90s, small-time actor and amateur photographer Ryan Sexton became obsessed with a man calling himself El Duce. Duce, aka Eldon Hoke, was the drummer and singer of a controversial punk band called The Mentors, a band that hooded themselves in black executioner hoods and spewed hateful lyrics in dive bars all over Los Angeles. Over the span of the next couple of years, Sexton recorded tape after tape of interviews, performances, and behind-the-scenes footage of the band only to store it when his subject became hostile and hard to pin down.
Now, decades later, spearheaded by Room 237 and The Nightmare’s Rodney Ascher, the tapes have resurfaced, cut into a raw, hard look at the troll before their were trolls and how he unwittingly sparked a culture of apathy and shocks-for-shocks’ sake. While the central thesis of the documentary could use a bit more strength, The El Duce Tapes is a fascinating look into performative hate, a man who seemed to thrive the more people were disgusted by him, and how that eventually destroyed him.
Eldon Hoke was, by all rights and from the people who knew him, a sweetheart of a man with a preternatural talent for drumming. His alter ego however, El Duce, was anything but. A beer swilling, foul-mouthed, and hateful toad of a person, extolling his love for sexual violence and the scatological from behind his cheap drum kit. Therein lies the main insane dichotomy of Hoke and the feature that bares his name.
Using the bulk of Sexton’s original footage, directors Ascher and David Lawrence cut together a loose narrative from the odd collection of footage. Starting with Hoke’s early life and career, which started as a fledgling jazz fusion artist, the trio of directors provide a weird primer for Hoke’s persona and band, easing the audience into Hoke’s particular brand of scum and barking misogyny.
But then the footage starts to take a more interesting bent on the narrative presented, delving into Hoke’s troubled childhood thanks to interviews with Hoke, his sister, and his bandmates. From there, the film paints a picture of a maladjusted black sheep, one struggling with the looming shadows of his intellectual family (his father was an aerospace engineer who worked with the military and his older siblings both honor students) and acting out by sowing chaos wherever he could. As we see, Hoke grows from an openly hostile youth to downright angry adult, lashing out with his over-the-top lyrics and aggressive band — which at the time attracted the attention of Tipper Gore and the P.M.R.C.
Though thankfully the film never explicitly endorses Hoke’s troubling alter ego, it certainly goes a long way to make sure we have a context for it. It does so with a masterful arrangement of the interview footage, as well as well-timed personal insights from the doomed Hoke and his inner circle, who all have interesting takes on El Duce, the “art” he made, and just what kind of role he played in Hoke’s everyday worldview.
Ascher and Lawrence kind of muddy these personal insights by trying to tie a narrative thread from The Mentors’ heyday in the ’90s with the emergence of grunge and the cheerfully un-PC apathy of Gen X. Viewers will instantly see this kind of lamp-shading as well as how much it bogs down the doc. Had they completely committed to this idea and had just a bit more meat on that story bone, I think it could have really been something. But even that misstep isn’t enough to dull the dark, troubling magnetism of this feature.
Armed with a sort of playful nihilism and cheek, The El Duce Tapes is an incendiary, yet human look at the man behind the grossness. Unconcerned with pulling punches or accessibility, Rodney Ascher, David Lawrence, and Ryan Sexton’s deep dive into this super troubling scene has to be seen to be truly believed. You couldn’t make up someone like El Duce, and now we have the tapes to prove it.