The silent roadie, Trip (Dane DeHaan), casually skates toward the Metallica concert and sees James Hetfield in a flaming hot rod. Afterward, he walks past Robert Trujillo prepping his bass in his studio, which shakes the entire room. Metallica’s legacy precedes itself; they have sold more than 180 million albums and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. The film’s exaggerated representations of the band members aren’t entirely gratuitous, as they have already become deified as rock’s gods.
Now, 30 years into their career, they have released their first IMAX 3D concert movie, “Metallica: Through the Never.” Paralleling an apocalyptic narrative with an immense Metallica concert, this film marks the continuation of a band that has reached heights no other modern rock band has achieved.
The movie starts and ends not with Metallica but with the fictional narrative of Trip’s journey to retrieve an unknown package for the band. After a John Woo-styled car crash, Trip is stuck between a faction of protesters and a group of riot police tapping their batons in unison to the song. The theme of injustice and protest has been covered in the band’s past music, especially in their seminal album, …And Justice For All. When asked about this common motif, Metallica co-founder James Hetfield noted, “It is a struggle of mankind wanting to be heard. Whatever it is, there’s conflict, and (the film’s) just highlighting that. It’s a metaphor for the human struggle.”
All hell breaks loose as the protests quickly descend into full-fledged anarchy. Trip’s clash with a violent group of dissidents coincides with the band’s hits, such as “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “One” and “Master of Puppets.” The connection between the narrative and the music delineates the distinction between the imaginary exterior world of Trip’s odyssey and the interior world of the Metallica concert.
While these two worlds seem like separate entities, they slowly start to converge. Hetfield described the process of juggling these two parts saying, “(It) took a little finessing … Having to get those together, some songs had to go and some had to get moved around to fit with the scenes.” The music complements the narrative well, with “Fuel” playing as Trip is speeding alone down the road.
The narrative, however, provides little context for the characters and scenarios, becoming increasingly surreal and jarring with the escalation of violence and destruction. Trip walks past several lynched bodies in the street as he continues his journey, unaware of the danger that may lie ahead. There is no explanation of the events as we witness Trip’s near-suicide mission. But the film isn’t concerned with answering these plot points — it’s focused on establishing a bleak tone and desperate atmosphere of survivalism to correspond with the music.
In the concert, the band starts with “The Ecstasy of Gold” from Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” a staple of all their performances since 1983. Tradition has always been part of Metallica’s modus operandi and will continue to be. It’s a rarity that a band as prominent as Metallica stick together after all these years, and the chemistry from their decades of unity shows onstage.
James Hetfield can shout with both aggression and zeal in “Battery” and transition to a more subdued and expressive tone in “Nothing Else Matters.” Kirk Hammett still shreds like no one else can, and his virtuosic guitar solos will definitely arouse some head-banging in the theater. Lars Ulrich’s drumming — frenetic and fast-paced — never fails to keep up with the dynamic, shifting tempos and rhythms of the songs. From their underground thrash metal years of “Kill ‘Em All” to their breakout mainstream appeal in their self-titled album, the movie’s song list will appeal to the most hardcore fans and presents the band’s expansive range.
The stage for Metallica’s performance has never been bigger, thanks to an elaborate array of lights, screens and pyrotechnics. The camera shots range from close-up shots of James Hetfield and other band members to views of the audience and fly-on-the-wall shots, providing a holistic perspective for the audience. The visuals on the stage accompany the music with soldiers crossing for “One” and coffins and gravestones ominously flashing for “Master of Puppets.” The 3-D technology and the cinematic qualities of the film bring the viewer much closer to the stimulating and immersive experience of a concert.
“Let’s see if we can take this to another level,” James says to the crowd as he tries to get them involved with the music. Metallica has gone far and beyond the level of what a rock band can be. But they haven’t forgotten their roots in San Francisco. Lars Ulrich said, “We fly the flag of San Francisco proudly all over the world and always have. This is our home — family, friends, peers. San Francisco is a big part of what Metallica is.”
The merging of Trip’s narrative and Metallica’s concert, although anachronistic at times, provides a unique and mesmerizing experience for Metallica fans and a compelling introduction for those who aren’t fans. Metallica has not only combined critical and commercial success with their albums but also has expanded across all different media spectrums, from their documentary “Some Kind of Monster” to a “Guitar Hero” video game and now a concert movie in IMAX 3D. “Metallica: Through the Never” is an extension of the band’s larger-than-life ethos.