The question before a Reno, Nev., District Court judge in the case of James Vance vs. Judas Priest was whether some of the heavy-metal band's lyrics carried subliminal messages that caused two teen-agers to attempt suicide in December 1985. One of them, Ray Belknap, succeeded; his friend James Vance survived, and PBS viewers can see him tonight (10 p.m., Channel 22) terribly disfigured, trying to explain his feelings at the moment he pulled the shotgun trigger: "It was like I had no control over it."
"Dream Deceivers," the hourlong documentary in the "P.O.V." series of independently produced works, tells its grim story through interviews with members of Judas Priest, with the parents of Belknap and of Vance (who has since died) and with other young fans of heavy metal as well as through courtroom testimony.
The so-called subliminal messages, which the judge decided were accidental combinations of sounds, are incidental to the program's real subject: youths unmoored from their families and adrift in lives that had little to compete with the pounding highs of noise and light shows.
No one comes off admirably. The teen-agers' families have histories of alcoholism, drug use, gambling problems, domestic violence, petty crimes and suicide attempts that have nothing to do with music.
The psychologically disposed viewer may interpret the parents' lawsuit as an effort to shed their own responsibility while trying to make some money.
The Judas Priesters -- seen in performance in leather, metal studs and tattoos and then in courtroom garb -- seem smug and snide. One is caught smiling in a superior way at the confession by Vance's mother that she likes western tunes and the Singing Nun.