Metallica are probably best known to movie lovers as the subject of "Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster", the 2004 documentary where the band came across as cranky has-beens clinging desperately to a lifestyle that had come to define them but which they had no remaining passion for. I can't tell you how happy I am that 9 years later we get "Metallica Through The Never" (2013 dir. Nimrod Antal). It may not be as essential a film as its predecessor, but it sure as hell is a happier coda to the band's career thus far.
Of course, comparing the two is kind of silly, since one is a study of artists in crisis and the other is a concert film. But it really did feel like "Monster" was the beginning of the end, bittersweetly documenting the creation of the band's worst album during a total emotional breakdown. Since then the band has had a massive attitude adjustment, and The Metal is alive within them once more. Any metalhead really needs to make an effort to see this movie, unless they hate Metallica. And let's be honest, any metalhead who claims to hate Metallica is probably just trying to be cool.
So there are two movies to review here, and the most important is the concert footage. Simply put, Metallica are legends for a reason. Mid-life crises fully behind them, they have a swagger and intensity that truly is thrash metal personified. That attitude is intoxicating, and the crowd fires just as much enthusiasm back at the band, who grin and nod approvingly at their cult. The footage was apparently filmed over several nights, which allowed multiple elaborate sets to be used: A giant electric chair shooting lighting across the stadium; a field of eerie gravestones rising out of the fog around the band; and perhaps the most incredible, a statue of Lady Justice which is constructed on stage by a crew then demolished during "...And Justice For All". When that thing blew up I was amazed that Lars wasn't crushed by falling chunks of marble.
The showmanship and enthusiasm are so incredible that it makes up for the band's shortcomings. In the last decade their live performances have shifted to emphasize riffs above all else, at the expense of the subtlety that made their truly great moments on record stand out from other thrash bands. Compared to a Metallica album, their live show is more intent on simply rocking your face off. But an hour of that can get a little tiresome: riffs are all they've got. Great riffs, mind you, but the details needed to give the music life can sometimes get lost amid the band's stormtrooper-like chug.
And yeah, I'm gonna bring up Kirk Hammett, because he's consistently the weak link here. His guitar solos boil down to "SOLO GOES HERE MWEEDLYMWEEDLYMWOOOOOOW", instead of actually hitting the right notes, or keeping tempo. The newer songs are a different story, since his wah-heavy style was actually used to pretty good effect from the Black Album on. But "Lightning" and "Puppets" material is featured heavily here, and Kirk does kinda whiff most of it. Thankfully, outside of the solos, he ends up just another part of the mix.
On the positive side, the rest of the band is mostly solid. Newest member Rob Trujillo is a top notch bass player, with a caveman like stage presence that complements the bands brutality nicely. Lars and James are as great as ever, and the setlist is nearly perfect. I can't think of any truly essential cuts that are missing... maybe "Fade to Black" and "Sad But True", but the movie is only 97 minutes long and something's got to go.
All of this makes for a great time for Metallica fans. But the special element here is the structure that cuts between the concert and Trip's fictional cross-town errand. Most reviews I've seen have complained that the fictional footage is incoherent and stupid, which is probably true if you aren't really into metal. There's hardly any narrative spine connecting what happens, but applying logic to what is essentially music video footage is pointless. This stuff is meant to intensify the band's music, which it doesn't try to do by literalizing the lyrics (thankfully) but by using all kinds of thrash metal imagery: murderous horsemen, riots in the streets, men on fire, etc. The "Battery" section was particularly excellent, and I imagine those visuals will play in my head for me during that song from now on.
Thrash fans will eat it up, and nobody really cares what anyone else thinks. Another advantage of this approach is that the fictional sections are used to paper over the more tedious portions of Metallica's frequently overlong compositions, keeping the film from bogging down. Finally, Trip's journey is a fitting expression of Metallica's well known appreciation for their road crew, without whom none of this business would be possible.
That perhaps is a key to why Metallica, out of all bands, had to be the one to produce this film. While I may like some other metal bands more, I can't deny that I own all of Metallica's albums and listen to them frequently. Let's face it, they're pretty important. And they have an inclusive, populist bent to their persona (as a band) that makes it easy for people to love them. They don't put themselves on a pedestal and show off, they entertain. And watching a 3D concert film in a theatre, surrounded by a virtual audience as well as a real one both throwing the horns and singing along was an incredible experience indeed. "Metallica Through The Never" ain't perfect, but it's just so damn fun.