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Ronnie James Dio ‘Dreamers Never Die’ Documentary: Review

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Like the fantasy books it often draws inspiration from, the realm of heavy metal is filled with kings and queens, heroes and villains, outlaws and ghosts. Of them, few weighed bigger than Ronnie James Dio, who served in Rainbow and Black Sabbath before leading his own band under his own banner. One of rock’s greatest singers, he was both larger than life and down to earth, a journeyman musician whose career began before the Beatles, rose to fame in the heyday of 1970s hard rock and who never stopped making music until his death in 2010.

The new documentary Dio: dreamers never die is an epic tale of hard work and survival, told by those who knew Dio and loved him. He follows his winding path, victories and setbacks, which eventually led him to the throne room of metal. Directed by Don Argott and Demian Fenton, the creative team behind the excellent 2011 film Last days hereit saw a limited theatrical release in September of this year and is currently airing on Showtime.

Dio’s story begins in a small town in upstate New York. Born Ronnie James Padavona in 1948, he was raised in a close-knit Italian-American family. Befitting someone whose debut album featured a drowning priest, he was an altar boy and a good student in his youth before joining a gang and trying his hand as a juvenile delinquent. His interest in music began early, beginning first on the trumpet, which he credits with teaching him the breathing techniques that would later give his voice its soaring power.

While future metal gods were either learning the guitar or still trapped in the loins of their parents, Dio hit vinyl in 1958 with Ronnie & The Redcaps, borrowing his stage name from mobster Johnny Dio. For the next decade he struggled to find the perfect vehicle for his vocals, with late ’60s proto-metal finally providing the perfect setting. It’s predictable and nasty to discuss Dio’s short stature, he was only 5ft 4in tall, although he played with it from the start, naming his 60s band The Electric Elves, later Elf. Once he stepped up to the mic and opened his mouth, he appeared to be 10 feet tall.

After being produced by Roger Glover and Ian Paice of Deep Purple, Elf became the band’s opening act for several years. When Mercurial guitarist Ritchie Blackmore left Purple, he recruited Dio as the lead singer of his new band, Rainbow. They would pioneer what is called “neoclassical metal,” Dio drawing deep from the wells of fantasy novels and sword and sorcery in his lyrics. “It was the band I wanted to be in forever,” he says in a file interview, but he would leave Rainbow once Blackmore started chasing pop success.

Luckily, a struggling metal monolith was looking for fresh blood. Filling in huge boots, Dio replaced Ozzy Osbourne in 1979’s Black Sabbath, giving them a second life on two classic albums, the 1980s heaven and hell and 1981 mob rules. Sabbath gifted Dio fame and authority. Dio gave them majesty and class. Note: some people will tell you that Dio era records are “not real Sabbath records”. These people are fools. Unfortunately, ego and drug addiction would lead to Dio’s departure in 1982.

It was during Sabbath that Dio popularized devil horns, holding his hands up in concert and creating one of metal’s greatest signifiers. He borrowed it from his grandmother, who brought the custom back from the old country and used it to ward off evil spirits. According to Dio, in his hands it has nothing to do with Satan or evil and simply means “long live rock n’ roll”.

Coming out as the leader of his own band, Dio would become one of the biggest bands during the heavy metal boom years. Living in Los Angeles, his fellow musicians say his mind has always been on music, preferring rock n’ roll to sex or drugs. He married his wife Wendy in 1978 and she would later become his manager. She often serves as the film’s narrator, sharing her memories of the man she loved and the life they lived together.

As 80s metal gives way to 90s grunge, the kingdom of Dio is under threat. He continued to tour and release new music, but with fewer and fewer minions. However, nostalgia for Generation X, guitar playing video games, and CD reissues led to a resurgence in popularity in the following century. He even reunited with Sabbath under the moniker Heaven and Hell in 2007. While on tour, he started suffering from stomach pain which was later diagnosed as stomach cancer. He died in 2010, the depth of his loss illustrated by several people crying while discussing his depth.

Lasting nearly two hours, Dio: dreamers never die may be a tough sell to anyone who doesn’t believe in the holy faith of heavy metal rock n’ roll. Viewers, meanwhile, will be rewarded with a tome rich in detail and storytelling. Little touches, like chyrons reading “Craig Goldy, Heartbreaking Guitarist Who Will Eventually Join Dio” and “Gene Hunter, Mysterious Guitarist We Couldn’t Find” show the filmmakers’ sense of humor and affection for their subject. Despite the greatness of his music, Dio endures because he spoke directly to fans, often literally, showing that even rock’s greatest gods were ordinary men and women just like them. WARNING!

Benjamin H. Smith is a New York-based writer, producer, and musician. Follow him on Twitter: @BHSmithNYC.



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