Mike’s Review: Dio – Dreamers Never Die (SXSW 2022)

🤘🤘🤘🤘🤘 out of 🤘🤘🤘🤘🤘

Directed by Don Argott and Demian Fenton

“This is rock and roll that is going to change your fucking life!” — Lita Ford. 

While not a horror film per se, there’s ABSOLUTELY no denying Ronnie James Dio’s lasting legacy in the deeply unholy marriage of heavy metal and horror. With over 40 years of lyrics that are crammed with ghouls, tortured priests, malevolent dimensions, and demons, there’s no doubt that Dio had a soft spot in his heart for all things horror. 

From the iconic cover of Holy Diver showing a beastly creature drowning a catholic priest (arguably the greatest Heavy Metal cover of all time), to the Cthulu-esque cover of 1987’s Dream Evil, Dio always worked to incorporate dark elements in his song titles, lyrics, and album covers. Sure they calibrate to the fantasy side of the equation, but we’re claiming Dio in the name of horror!

Packed with exceptional interviews from Rob Halford, Lita Ford (who kind of stole the show), Sebastian Bach, Glenn Hughes, Rudy Sarzo, Dan Likker, Roger Glover, Don Dokken, Tony Iommi, Geezer Bulter, and Bill Ward, what’s clear throughout Dreamers Never Die is Dio’s kindness and his over-arching drive to music greatness. 

Born in 1942 and tragically passed away in 2010, Dio, born Ronnie Padavona, began life as a mischievous alter boy. His tyrannic father forced him to practice trumpet three hours each and every day. However, as it turns out, this was less of a punishment for young Mr. Padavona, but more of a life lesson about the grit and determination he would need in the future of METAL. 

Cutting his first album with the Ronnie and the Redcaps in 1958, it wouldn’t be until 1961 when Ronnie’s dulcet demonic crooning would appear on vinyl. Somewhere around this time Ronnie was convinced that the name Padavona would never stand out in the rough and tumble world of the music business and he decided to crib the name of a New York mobster, Johnny Dio. From then on the world would forever know him as Ronnie Dio — or more to the point, Ronnie James Dio. 

Throughout the 1960s and in to the 1970s, Ronnie would go through a series of lineup changes, styles, and sounds: Ronnie and the Redcaps > Ronnie and the Prophets > Electric Elves > Elf. It wouldn’t be until the early 1970s when the deeply Deep Purple obsessed members of Elf would get their day in the sun. At the recording session for Elf several members of Deep Purple sat in to listen to this small but mighty vocal savant and soon thereafter took them on tour with ELO. 

The oft difficult and mercurial Ritchie Blackmore would eventually have one of many falling outs with Deep Purple and make the move for heavier pastures. Enlisting the vocal stylings of Ronnie James Dio the two would set out to make four of the heaviest albums in the 1970s under the rather pleasant moniker, Rainbow. As Ritchie Blackmore became exceptionally frustrated with the inability to find a top ten hit in the U.S. he began to look towards pop-oriented love songs. Ironically enough his reason for leaving Deep Purple was that the band wanted to employ a more funk-heavy sound. Much like Ritchie’s initial disdain for this sound, Ronnie too wanted something heavier and darker. 

Fangoria! Woo!
Throwing the goat!

But, it wouldn’t be until the late 1970s when the mighty Black Sabbath was immersed in piles and piles and piles of cocaine and an equally flawed rock and roll hubris, that Dio would get one of his biggest platforms. Sabbath’s reign was quickly fading, audiences were looking for less doom-laden blues-based tunes, and Ozzy was a cocaine-infused dumpster fire. 

Dio was in his 30s, out of work, and hanging out at the Rainbow Tavern in LA. Surreptitiously, he would meet the progenitor of Heavy Metal, Tony Iommi, and the two began their plan to launch Black Sabbath 2.0 with the legendary album, Heaven and Hell. It was at this point that Dio’s years and years of servile devotion to Metal would be fully rewarded. Belting out two studio albums and one live album Dio’s participation in Sabbath would fully cement his vocal greatness on the Mt. Rushmore of Metal. 

The film easily moves in and out of the phases of Dio’s life. Split with amazingly shot and conceived dramatic reenactments of people’s reactions to Dio, the film’s vignettes create an incredible connective tissue of the power of Metal. Interestingly the reenactments don’t deal directly with Dio, but the individual’s being interviewed about Dio. Stoners reacting to the release of Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell, radio executives pulling Dio in favor of Seattle grunge luminaries Nirvana, metalhead seeking salvation in the form of Rainbow, and the creation of the album cover fo Holy Diver. 

As Sabbath 2.0 fell to the same cocaine infighting as its original incantation, Dio set out on his own in 1983. Bringing forth Vinny Appice from Sabbath and Jimmy Bain from Rainbow, Dio only needed gunslinging youthful rock god Vivian Campbell to complete Metal perfection in the form of Holy Diver. 

As the 1980s elder metal statesman in LA, Dio would act as guide, confident, and advisor to many up and coming Metal bands. Metal would eventually birth Hair Metal and subsequently the entire empire would be destroyed by the dirty merger of Metal/Punk, also known as Grunge. 

Even for Dio completists, the film offers incredible insight to his life, his humility, and his precise drive for greatness. Much of the film centers around his wife and manager Wendy as she intimately recounts their tumultuous 32 year marriage. Some of the fascinating elements of the film include:

Rob Halford’s exceptional praise and deference for his long-time friend and metal companion; 

-Dio arbitrarily named the demon on his album covers “Murray”; 

Don Coscarelli, director of Phantasm (I, II, II, and IV), also directed the epic music video, Last in Line;

-The Dio logo turned upside down doesn’t, unfortunately, say “Devil”;

-Dio happened to meet both his wife and Tony Iommi at the Rainbow Tavern; and

-When Dio joined Sabbath he purposely took Ozzy’s peace symbol gesture and inverted into the culturally ubiquitous DEVIL HORNS.

While the film is bursting at the seams with many other Dio-related anecdotes what remains at the core is Dio’s advocacy and representation of the weak, oppressed, and less fortunate. Through his lyrics, his pet project Hearing Aid, to his mentoring of musicians, Dio was always conscious of the need to make Metal an inclusive and welcoming escape for all. As Rudy Sarzo points out Dio was “…never a victim in his lyrics, but a sage.”

Dio: Dreamers Never Die premiered at SXSW and will be out on the streets in late 2022.

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