For years, I’ve joked that Metallica has exactly two good songs, both of them off their mega-selling 1991 album Metallica. Those two songs are the lovely, lilting “Nothing Else Matters,” the closest these demon noise-makers ever came to a power ballad, and also “Enter Sandman,” which is their primordially catchy if very sinister idea of a lullaby. In a funny way, I’d say that Metallica agrees with me: Those two uncharacteristically melodious and listenable tunes are played at the very end of their new concert film, Metallica Through the Never. They know, in their way, that they’re saving the best for last.
In the rest of the movie, Metallica showcase themselves as the thrash virtuosos of doom they’ve been for more than 30 years. Their dark, driven music, with its low-down, roar-of-the-beast chord progressions and hell-bent rhythmic change-ups, is called metal, but it also it draws heavily — too heavily, for my blood — on the speed punk of the late ’70s and early ’80s, bands like Black Flag and Bad Brains that eked out a niche of raging nihilism but didn’t, at least to me, do what the great punk bands, from the Sex Pistols to the Ramones, had succeeded in doing: expressing the aggression that comes of no hope with an electrified life force. (Speed punk was closer to electro-shock. It made you want to bite down on a piece of rubber.) One of the startling coups of the thrash-metal bands, the defining one being Metallica, is that they merged two strains of music that couldn’t, in form and spirit, have seemed more opposed. Classic head-banging metal is exhilaratingly charged and sexualized — a freight train that struts. Speed punk is anger cut with an amphetamine overdose of anxiety; it is highly anti-sexual — the ultimate example of rock without the roll. Metallica put the two together into a charged hybrid. It was fierce, raw, and technically complicated music — and no question, they meant every growling note of it — but at the risk of coming off like a total music wuss [insert nasty reader comment here], I confess that I simply cannot sit around listening to metal that makes Guns N’ Roses sound like ABBA. I know Metallica’s fans swear by them, and 180 million albums sold probably can’t be wrong, but sorry, they’re a band I’ve never had any use for.
Yet I loved them in Metallica Through the Never — not the songs themselves (which are still, to my ears, more dark sonic architecture than compelling music), but the spell that they cast, using sound as a kind of conduit to a hidden netherworld of dread and power. In Through the Never, the four members of Metallica stand far apart on stage, as if each one was in his own arena, the same way the members of U2 did in the last concert movie that was this exciting, U2 3D (2007). It’s a strategy that allows them to play simultaneously to different parts of the audience, but splitting themselves into four separate units is also Metallica’s way of making a statement. They’re saying, “Behold! We are so mythic and potent, such a force of a band, that we don’t need to stand together to be a band. Our band-ness isn’t literal — four dudes with instruments clumped together in the same place on stage. It’s metaphysical: We’re everywhere! We rule the air around us! And each of us is iconic enough to stand on his own.”
In the case of Metallica, as with U2, that’s a true statement. The band’s members have all become characters, part of a greater story they’re telling, even after the painful personnel rotation chronicled in the much-loved metal-band-meets-therapy doc Some Kind of Monster (2004), which is when the lightning-riff bassist Robert Trujillo first joined the band. In Through the Never, Trujillo, huge and loping, with eyebrows sunk into his forehead, is like Hellboy with a touch of King Kong, a live cartoon expression of the band’s raw power. His opposite number is Kirk Hammett, the skinny guitarist with a skinny mustache and hair out of the mid-‘70s who tosses off licks made of white fire. These two, in their way, are the George and Ringo. The band’s two main attractions, by contrast, have that extra royal level of star quality and command. At 50, James Hetfield, having cleaned up his act, is still every bit the bad-boy biker-jock; his newly straight, short haircut only brings out how his spirit transcends metal fashion — his attraction to the dark side didn’t die before he got old. And Lars Ulrich, whose furious pounding poly-rhythms are the soul of the band, has lost none of his abrasive passion. The film takes us up close to his wall of drums and lets us feast on his expressions, his baby face gone savage.
The director, Nimród Antal, uses his camera as intimately as Martin Scorsese did in The Last Waltz, but he also draws back to capture the astounding spectacle of this band. The stage show in Through the Never suggests an apocalyptic mosh pit gone Vegas, complete with Wizard of Oz fireballs and electric chairs. And the audience is part of the spectacle: Hoisting fists and devil horns in the air, they’re like the crowd at a fascist rally — and I say that not to cast aspersions on Metallica’s fans, but because the emotions this music taps are all about calling forth power from the hidden depths, and letting that feeling course through you until there is nothing else left. The music in Through the Never comes off like the soundtrack to a serial killer’s brain, and though, as I’ve said, it’s not a sound I’ve ever much cared for, watching Through the Never I felt like I got Metallica for the first time. The movie is a grand 3-D opera that summons a world of speed-metal godlessness which it then triumphs over with lordly metal command.
Watching Through the Never, I realized that Metallica’s music doesn’t have to be catchy. It’s channeling something, a primitive fantasy of dread and conquest. The band’s sound is transfused with a dark freedom, and though it may not be pretty, in concert, at least, it is cathartic. Of course, Through the Never is being sold as more than a concert film. The stage show is intercut with a live-action fable in which the rising star Dane DeHaan plays a roadie who is sent out into the streets of a deserted steel-and-glass cityscape for what turns out to be a kind of suicide mission. He meets an army of hooligans on horseback! He sets himself on fire! To me, these sequences were okay, in a humdrum-graphic-novel sort of way (they might have been more effective if they didn’t look like they were shot in the unholy wilds of downtown Vancouver). But the movie didn’t really need them. In Through the Never, Metallica, in concert, is its own storybook fable — the guys who made thrash metal larger-than-life.