I only saw Héroes del Silencio, the groundbreaking Spanish rock band of the ’80s and ’90s, perform once, at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom on March 1996, during the first wave of their Avalancha tour. They were the headliners on a double bill featuring Mexican rock/new wave band La Lupita.
I was beginning to cover the rock en español scene for ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly. I was more impressed by La Lupita’s edgy, fun, spunky performance than Héroes’ more stadium-sized, ponderous, larger-than-life show (although guitarist Alan Boguslavsky’s riffs and lead vocalist Enrique Bunbury’s stage presence and voice did blow me away). Little did I know at the time that I was watching a band imploding.
Seven months later, at the Wateke ’96 pop en español festival in Devore, California, Bunbury stopped their concert when the crowd started throwing bottles at them. After warning them, he unplugged his guitar, raised his middle finger, and left. Days later, the members of Héroes del Silencio announced the band’s break-up.
They would reunite ten years later for a farewell tour, Bunbury having already developed a successful career as a genre-defying artist.
Alexis Morante’s new music documentary Heroes: Silence and Rock & Roll, currently streaming on Netflix, gathers over 600 hours of footage (some recorded by guitarist Juan Valdivia, who took his video camera everywhere Héroes went), photos, interviews with all five band members, music critics, promoters and producers to tell the very personal, warts and all, story of four friends from Zaragoza who formed a band, worked their asses off, lived the rock-and-roll dream and, at the height of their success, pushed the self-destruct button.
It may sound like your run-of-the mill “behind the scenes” documentary, and in many ways it is. But Heroes: Silence and Rock & Roll also offers a snapshot of a not-too-distant moment in time when Spain’s youth was beginning to find its voice, especially outside Madrid and Barcelona.
Having already worked with Bunbury—Morante directed several music videos and followed him and his musicians on his 2010 Las consecuencias tour for the 2016 documentary/road movie El camino más largo—Morante gained extraordinary access to Bunbury’s former bandmates who leave no stone unturned on their personal accounts of the band’s ups and downs.
The film starts at a pop-rock fair held in Zaragoza in the spring of 1986, where Bunbury, Valdivia, drummer Pedro Andreu and bassist Joaquín Cardiel played for several bands, some with their own material and others performing covers of The Cure and other groups. After hearing Bunbury sing a David Bowie song during an audition for a new bass player for his band, Valdivia proposed to Bunbury that they should form their own band. As Héroes del Silencio, they recorded their first demo, “Héroes de leyenda,” which got them some airplay on Radio Zaragoza.
Héroes del Silencio was one of 429 participants in a national pop-rock contest held in Salamanca. They ended in second place, in what was considered a controversial decision by the judges. They went back the following year, and again, came in second place. But by this time they had caught the attention of two producers, one of whom cashed in a favor with record label EMI-HISPAVOX and secured the group a deal to record an EP with the condition that if they sold 5,000 copies, they could then record their first LP. With the help of some guerrilla marketing and non-stop live performances, Héroes sold six times that amount.
But while that first album, El mar no cesa (1988), got them on the radio and secured them dozens of TV appearances, it did not capture how they sounded live. They were dismissed by music critics as a “hairdresser’s band.”
Héroes found a kindred soul in Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, who wanted their next album, Senderos de traición, to capture that live sound. Manzanera’s memory of seeing them perform live, and how it ties to his mother’s death, is one of the documentary’s most poignant moments.
Their first European tour followed their second album’s release. They hopped into a small van and played large and small venues in countries where no Spanish-language rock band had ever performed, gathering a hardcore following.
A trip to India inspired Bunbury and his bandmates to record a more musically baroque follow-up to Senderos de traición. And even though they had yet to write a single song, the band told Manzanera that they wanted El espíritu del vino to be a double album.
They spent more time doing drugs at the secluded location Manzanera secured for them in England than on working on the double album. It finally came out but so did the cracks in their relationships with each other. When the band embarked on the appropriately titled The Excess Tour in 1993, those cracks grew in size. As the group’s spokesperson, the press paid more attention to Bunbury and his antics than to his bandmates. To reenergize their sound they decided to bring Alan Bugoslavsky on board. Critics began to notice the toll the intense touring was taking on them and their performances. Bunbury even lost his voice during a concert in Montmartre.
The sudden death of their beloved manager and father figure, Martín Truille, in a car accident broke the camel’s back. By the time they started recording their last album, Avalancha, in Los Angeles with Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin, the four original band members could barely stand each other.
The documentary benefits enormously from the candid first-person observations and recollections of all the interviewees. And unlike other music documentaries about the rise and fall of famous groups, you don’t feel any sense of bitterness. There is no finger pointing. The facts are laid bare. These were the cards they were dealt with.
What is there, in their words, their emotions, is the wisdom and acceptance that come with the passage of time. They embrace the good as well as the bad. One feels that the 2007 farewell tour was more than an effort to repay a debt they had with their fans. It provided closure.
And while I wish Morante had spent more time meticulously detailing the conditions under which Avalancha was recorded, the way he did with those first albums, and how Héroes del Silencio was able to conquer a region as unwieldy and rebellious as Latin America, Heroes: Silence and Rock & Roll is a significant audiovisual contribution to the history of contemporary Ibero-American music. Morante and his co-writer and editor Nacho Blanco have, like good historians, assembled and distilled all these disparate primary and secondary sources into a coherent whole.
As a band, Héroes del Silencio might have been one of a kind, but they were also the product of a specific time and space. They were trailblazers who showed their fellow Spanish musicians and fans a different way of making music, while living a rock-and-roll life to the fullest.