Metallica are a lean, mean business machine, still ballsy enough to pull off something as silly as Through the Never but seasoned enough to never let the genre-bending concert film distract from their one true saving grace - their musicianship.
"Fortune, fame, mirror vain, gone insane but the memory remains..."
Sinewed hands move effortlessly across the frets, fingers riffing out a clarion call to metal fans old and new. Drums pound with tribal abandon while the bass player moves, animalistic, across the stage. From behind sunglasses hiding the obvious signs of age, the singer shouts down the masters of puppets, demands to ride the lightning, and prays for the death that never really comes as a victim (and statistic) of war. This is Metallica, the pioneers of thrash metal who, three decades before, started a journey to rewriting the rock 'n' roll rulebook along with Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. Adopting a punk ethic, a hard rock stance, and some of prog's prolonged noodling, the group went from cult heroes to stadium gods so quickly that it now seems silly to think of them as anything but Establishment.
But there was a time when Metallica were ready to implode. Lead singer James Hetfield was battling personal demons and a drying out stint in rehab, bassist Jason Newsted (having replaced the late great Cliff Burton years before) was ousted over his dedication to a side solo project, and as founding drummer Lars Ulrich continued the band's corporate marketing, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett just wanted to surf and play music. During Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's proposed promo piece on the recording of the group's album, St. Anger, it all became some kind of monster. The results required the services of a shrink and a last act group hug which saw seasoned sideman Robert Trujillo stepping in Newsted's role to provide the four string bottom, and getting a $1 million dollar advance in the process.
But that was way back in the nasty Napster days of the early naughts. Now, Metallica are a lean, mean business machine, still ballsy enough to pull off something as silly as Through the Never but seasoned enough to never let the genre-bending concert film distract from their one true saving grace - their musicianship. These guys can play, and collaborator Nimrod Antal (of Predators and Vacancy fame) wants to showcase as much of their chops as possible. Unlike other live act exposes which tend to treat the stage act as simply part of the PR, Through the Never gets up close and personal, walking us through Trujillo's troll like stalking of his fellow band members, his flowing black hair growing slicker and slicker with sweat as Hammett freewheels his stunning finger work.
Indeed, seeing the band like this, big as life and IMAXed to the hilt, makes the insert material dreamed up by the guys seem...well...rather stupid. The group is listed in the screenwriting credits and they, along with Antal, clearly love The Road Warrior, The Dark Knight Trilogy, and any expression of dystopian terror measured out in carefully considered set-pieces. The no-concert narrative makes no friggin' sense and the allusions to Metallica's catalog of creative output is limited at best. Instead, there seems to be a desire on Antal's part to tie the audience's riotous response to songs like "One," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and "...And Justice for All" to a literal interpretation of same via a strange storyline involving Dane DeHaan (as a band roadie), a missing satchel, and what turns out to be a journey through a violent, blood-soaked future shock uprising.
There's no denying the imagery has impact. When DeHaan's character comes across a city street with dozens of dead bodies hanging from ropes, or watches as a scared horse drags its dead ride behind it in wide eyed fear, we react. Our stomach sinks and our interest is peaked. But Through the Never fails to explain the significance, to tie what DeHaan is doing for the band with what Hetfield, Ulrich, Trujillo, and Hammett are doing onstage. Instead, it makes a last gasp attempt at linkage, offering up a final showdown ripple effect when DeHaan uses an enchanted sledgehammer (we aren't making this up) to destroy most of mayhem...and the metropolis with it. This leads to a weird sequence when fact and fiction merge, the band telling the audience that "everything is okay" with their now destroyed set, and proving same by grabbing a bunch of amps and playing "like we do in our garage (cue tongue in cheek wink)."
That moment is fun, but it's also a bit forced. In fact, most of the time, Through the Never feels like something some superstar would have done in the '70s as part of a contractual obligation. The competing ideas can't seem to get along and there is nothing really new or novel offered. Instead of coming up with what amounts to a third of an otherwise ordinary bit of post-apocalyptic nonsense, the band should have brought in Antal ala Talking Heads and Jonathan Demme, finding a way to make the concert into something more than a showcase of four amazing musicians and some referential backdrops.
In fact, it would have been fun to see the filmed footage featured on the various venue screens - people buried alive, soldier silhouettes dying in battle - given the same treatment as "Ride the Lightning" (with its descending electric chair and Tesla coil effects) or "Justice" (with the grand disintegrating statue). The song selection is also a bit suspect in that it fails to fully take advantage of the film's potential outreach. Sure, we expect "Enter Sandman," by why not a few covers, or better yet, more moments of improvisational jamming like what we see over the credits?
Obviously, pitching the hits is the purpose behind Through the Never, and for the most part, we could care less. The amount of skill and chutzpah shown by Metallica as players reflects back on the polish of three plus decades doing what they do best. Sure, they may seem light years away from their notorious nickname - Alcohollica - and now come across as businessmen who use power chords and stadium chants as their stock in trade, but it's a grand bit of musical merchandising. As long as they can play as powerfully as they do here, no amount of Mad Maxx malarkey can sidetrack Metallica's staying power.