Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Dio: Dreamers Never Die’ on Showtime, an Enthusiastic Documentary Celebration of Heavy Metal’s Greatest Singer – Decider
Dio: Dreamers Never Die (now on Showtime) is the long-awaited documentary about the greatest heavy metal singer who ever was or will be. Sorry Rob Halford, Bruce Dickinson, Ozzy Osbourne and King Diamond – Ronnie James Dio had lungs like no other, and you know it. Directors Don Argott and Demian Fenton – the duo behind another seminal heavy metal doc, Last Days Here, about the rollercoaster life of Pentagram vocalist Bobby Liebling – put together this exuberant bio authorized by Dio’s longtime wife and manager, Wendy Dio. It gives us an almost-complete portrait of one of the true, honest-to-Lucifer greats of hard rock and metal, of a singular man with a singular voice.
The Gist: SUBTITLE: 1983 (note: it’s not really 1983). A longhaired teen runs up the stairs and drops Dio’s ‘Holy Diver’ on the turntable and starts losing his shit. (He’s not really losing his shit – he’s an actor in one of this doc’s several kitschy-fun speculative-fiction reenactment scenes. But the kid looks like you or I did back when we were 14 and hella stoked to be dropping the needle on a new metal record that was almost certain to drive our parents crazy.) Stand by for incoming Praise of Dio: From funny singer/actor guy Jack Black, Judas Priest screamer Rob Halford, kickass rocker Lita Ford, veteran rock DJ Eddie Trunk and others. “There was just something about him,” someone says in voiceover, and to that I say, yes, of course, if there wasn’t something about him, there likely wouldn’t be a documentary about him, and that something about him that was really something was definitely HIS VOICE, an exquisitely marbled, growling baritone that gives me goosebumps at the mere thought of hearing it.
But leave the deep dives into the intricacies of Dio’s vocal abilities to the opera singers reacting to crazy rock vocalists on YouTube. This documentary takes us into Dio’s house, where his widow Wendy still lives. It’s full of dark wood fixtures and carvings and sculptures befitting a man who wrote songs in which wild dreams, mystical arcing rainbows and slaying dragons were inspirational metaphors for living your fullest life. Wendy pulls out a trumpet. It was Dio’s, of course, the same one he played way back when he was Ronald James Padavona in tiny Cortland, New York. His hardcase father made him practice the horn three hours a day, which primed and exercised his lungs and diaphragm to be one hell of a singer. That was something he didn’t want at first, but the mic got passed to him, and once he let rip, that was that: The birth of A Voice.
We meet a nutty Dio collector who I envy for having a bunch of the man’s early recordings, from trumpet performances to balladeering in the style of Tom Jones. That was the 1950s. During the next decade, Dio would tour with a cover band that learned entire Beatles albums for its repertoire, before forming what would become Elf, the beefy, blues-based rock band modeled after their heroes, Deep Purple. Fate would book Elf as Purple’s opening act, and when the Brit stalwarts split with wildly talented weirdo guitarist Richie Blackmore (Lita Ford sums him up perfectly: “F—ing Blackmore. Oh my f—ing god.”), he recruited Dio to sing for Rainbow, which ditched the blues for neo-classical influences, and therefore became thee formative castle-rock band. It was MAGIC.
However, Blackmore eventually wanted to write hit songs for American radio, which wasn’t Dio’s thing. In fact, it never was Dio’s thing. The world came to him. He didn’t pander to it. When he rose to the top of the heavy metal world in the mid-’80s, it was on his terms. Dio never, ever sold out. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I’ve skipped over how Dio came to front the gods-of-all-gods band whose name must be typed like so:
B L A C K S A B B A T H
He replaced the seemingly irreplaceable Ozzy Osbourne, recording two albums that are absolute cornerstones of all eras of heavy metal. When personality clashes ended that creative marriage, he formed his solo band, aptly named Dio, writing songs in the crappy little shed behind his house and taking out a mortgage to finance his first tour. We see former Skid Row singer and living cartoon character Sebastian Bach sing along to a Dio record. We get a terrific segment on the Hear ’N Aid project Dio spearheaded, assembling every metal guy of note in one room to record a ‘We are the World’-type charity single. We sit down with drummer and longtime Dio collaborator Vinny Appice as he digs through old Dio band rehearsal tapes – and there’s Dio’s voice, full and powerful, even during a crappy old rehearsal, just roaring, because he couldn’t do it any other way. F—ing Dio. Oh my f—ing god.
Photo: Getty Images
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Dreamers Never Die is a traditional talking-heads retrospective, and doesn’t have the fly-on-the-wall style of definitive metal bios like Anvil! The Story of Anvil! or Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. It skews closer to We Are Twisted F—ing Sister or Joan Jett doc Bad Reputation, but with more playful stylistic and tonal flourishes.
Performance Worth Watching: You can’t help but love highly animated goofs like Bach, Ford and Black as they share their enthusiasm for Dio. But talking heads like Trunk and Dio biographer Mick Wall provide crucial context for the story of the man’s career.
Memorable Dialogue: Black, on why Dio sang songs with dark, evil themes: “How good is the bible without the devil? Dude, no spice.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Dio doesn’t have a Behind the Music saga of triumph and tragedy – beyond creative clashes with musical collaborators and some vague, briefly addressed marital issues with Wendy, Dio’s career wasn’t juicy in the usual sex-drugs-and-rock manner. As anyone who spends the better part of five decades in the music business, Dio had his ups and downs in terms of commercial viability, but he never stopped singing, recording and touring, even during the darkest days of the 1990s, when metal was terminally passe to everyone but the true never-say-die lifers (WE KNOW WHO WE ARE, DON’T WE?).
So instead of structuring the doc like a rollercoaster, Argott and Fenton pieced together a celebratory biography full of exuberant talking heads, cheeky reenactments and potent archival footage. They cover the origins of the devil horns gesture that Dio poopularized with his own bare hands (appropriated from his highly intimidating grandmother!), explore his frequently empowering and optimistic lyrical themes without getting overdramatic, and assert that he was an approachable, down-to-earth man and intently driven artist who died too soon (in 2010, at 67, of stomach cancer). And then we get a bevy of colorful commentary and anecdotes: “Ronnie defeating the dragon became a metaphor for the man,” Dio guitarist Craig Goldy says as we see Dio on stage, slaying a beast with a big sword. “Ronnie couldn’t write ‘Unskinny Bop Bop’ if they put a gun to his head,” says Dio fan and fellow rock singer Don Dokken.
For Dio lifers who already know the basics of his life, the gem moments here – like Appice’s rehearsal tape and archival snippets of Dio’s pre-Elf performances – are worth the price of admission. (They’ll also carp about some glossed-over portions of his career, e.g. his first reunion with S A B B A T H in the early ’90s.) But beyond that, Dreamers Never Die is a warm, glossy endeavor that ultimately feels like a bunch of metalheads sitting in a room, cranking ‘Mob Rules’ and ‘Holy Diver’ and cracking a few beers as they gush about their all-time favorite singer.
Our Call: Enthusiastic and affirming, Dio: Dreamers Never Die is a headbanger’s feast. I can’t speak for the uninitiated, as their mileage may vary, but it’s also a reasonably thorough, informative and professional biography. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.