Metallica changed my life. No, I’m actually not even kidding. I was just drifting around as a kid, listening to crappy glam metal in the mid-to-late eighties, when a friend’s brother played Master Of Puppets for me, and the entire game changed. Music could do things I did not realize, and there was a whole other world out there. I fell in love with metal, and with Metallica, and that sentiment stands to this day. Of course, I stopped actually buying Metallica records almost 20 years ago — they started to drift away from me with … And Justice For All, and then they lost me with their eponymous 1991 album. But their first three albums remain three of the greatest metal albums of all time.
Anyway. It’s with that background that I walked into the peculiar Metallica: Through The Never. Directed by Nimród Antal, it’s part live concert film and part bizarre, hallucinogenic short film. I was trepidatious about the project for pretty much every one of those reasons — while I bear them no ill will, I also have no real interest in the newer Metallica catalog, the premise of the film wasn’t particularly intriguing, and Nimród Antal directed the utterly bland Predators — and the rest of his resume goes downhill from there.
But there are a few critical items that made the experience far more worthwhile than I expected. First, the story, if one can even call it that, is actually remarkably well executed. The loose premise of Through The Never is that Metallica is in an unnamed city for a massive stadium concert, and a roadie named Trip (Dane Dehaan, who some may know from the terrific Chronicle) is tasked with driving across town to help a crucial package make its way to the band. The package is a Maguffin — instead, the focus is on the darkly bizarre adventure that Trip has. He’s promptly involved in a wicked car accident, followed by a full-scale riot/revolt in the streets. He then catches the ire of a strange, terrifying horseman who wears a gas mask and wields a makeshift hammer, and is pursued through the city, all the while trying to complete his quest. In the meantime, Metallica is back at the stadium, putting on the mother of all shows.
The story of Trip is ultimately little more than an exercise in frenetic chase sequencing and bizarre, trippy (ahem) sequences that smoothly and spookily blend from dreamlike to nightmarish. Antal isn’t much of a storyteller, and the story here is pretty sparse (especially given that there is absolutely no dialogue, though that aspect works in the film’s favor). That said, he has an incredible visual flair, and as a result, we are presented with an absolutely stunning pastiche of garish, often grisly vignettes and a fairly intensely paced tale, all broken up into minute-long segments that we flash to over the course of the concert.
As visually arresting as Trip’s quest is, it’s actually Metallica themselves that make the endeavor worthwhile. Because what hasn’t changed about the band since my youth is this: they are an absolutely spectacular live act, and Through The Never captures that beautifully. The camera work is dizzying and the film is edited with just the right amount of swooping shots of the massive stage, while also spending enough time focused on each of the four band members to give you a full picture of their style and attitudes. Much of it never feels quite real, but that all works within the larger concept that the film is working with.
Metallica is a group of 50-year old men, and my god, they come to rock. Each of them brings their own sense of style — James Hetfield, snarling and barking on vocals while hammering at rhythm guitar,. Kirk Hammett, coolly and stoically wailing and grinding and thrashing his way through lead guitar, Lars Ulrich, who assaults his drum kit with a ferocious intensity, and relative newcomer Robert Trujillo (of Suicidal Tendencies fame) a hulking brute of a man with a wild enthusiasm and boundless energy on bass. They clearly share a genuine camaraderie born out of decades of playing together (at least when it comes to Hetfield, Ulrich and Hammett), and a honest love of their music and of performing live, and that exuberance really is fun to watch.
Best of all, however, was the song selection, which ran the gamut from classics to newer tracks. And while the ones from the last few albums ultimately failed to stir much of a response, when they pounded through tracks like “Hit The Lights,” “Creeping Death,” “Master Of Puppets,” and “Battery,” the film felt almost like it was going to explode off the screen. I’ll also admit that I saw this screening in an IMAX theater, and the effect of that was remarkable and breathtaking.
If the film has a flaw, it’s that it’s hard to really get swept up in the narrative aspect of it, as you’ll sometimes go ten or fifteen minutes without seeing any kind of story progression. It’s terribly disjointed in that way — it’s a 90 minute film and probably only 15 minutes of it dedicated to Trip. So if you’re not into the music, the project will likely be a frustrating one. But it’s still a beautifully shot, wildly fun picture for the metalheads among us, and so watching this group of old friends pound and scream and blaze through some of their best works makes for a pretty damn enjoyable experience.