Big, brash 3-D concert movies are all the rage these days. And rage is exactly what the undisputed kings of thrash deliver in Metallica Through the Never.
Don't be lulled into complacency by the fact that the band's youngest member is 48. Or that the group's last movie, the 2004 behind-the-scenes documentary Some Kind of Monster, was as much about group therapy as it was guitars pummeling cranked amps.
No, Through the Never finds these four horsemen of the metal apocalypse thundering through a 94-minute assault engineered to perforate your eardrums and liquefy your innards.
Oh, and there actually are horsemen and the apocalypse tossed into the dramatic mix here too. Read on.
Kill 'Em All
Metallica, of course, has been unleashing aural body blows since its 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All. And the passage of time has done little to blunt the band's bombastic impact, much to fans' delight, whom the filmmakers frequently show us as they scream every word of every song.
The concert portion of this film—which accounts for 70% or so—is a visual tour de force. As someone who's been to myriad concerts and seen plenty of concert movies, I don't envy producers and designers who are tasked with reinventing the wheel when it comes to filming a live performance in a way that sets their band apart from others that have come before.
But it seems clear that Metallica's creative team has indeed gone that extra mile to rise to the challenge. The band performs "in the round" on a vaguely H-shaped stage. But it's no ordinary stage. The entire surface is composed of video screens that display all manner of imagery related to the 16 songs in the set list.
But that's just the beginning of the multimedia proceedings. Massive pyrotechnics regularly erupt from both the floor and ceiling. During "Master of Puppets," glowing white crosses emerge from the floor, representing the iconic tombstones on the cover of that album. Elsewhere, aerial rigging descends and morphs, Transformers-style, to reveal a ring of caskets hanging around the stage's perimeter—caskets with crosses on one side and video screens on the other bearing footage of people trapped inside screaming and pounding to get out.
Speaking of pounding, there's plenty of that as Metallica rumbles through 30 years of its biggest hits, including "Creeping Death," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Fuel," "Ride the Lightning," "The Memory Remains," "Wherever I May Roam," "Cyanide," "One," "Battery" and "Enter Sandman."
"… And Justice for All" may top them all, as a group of set engineers construct a towering replica of Lady Justice in real time, onstage, during the show … only to have it collapse (on purpose) at the climax.
Even if you don't know much about Metallica, a glimpse of song titles like those should say a lot to you about the band's morbid and melancholy focus. Sometimes, as with "One," James Hetfield and Co. explore the intertwined themes of death and desperation from a hauntingly earnest perspective. The song deals with a WWI soldier who's been mortally wounded by a land mine. As he dies, he longs for God to save him … or at least deliver him from his suffering: "Hold my breath as I wish for death/Oh please, God, wake me/Now the world is gone, I'm just one/Oh, God, help me."
The band even explores biblical themes at times. "Creeping Death," for instance, deals with Moses, Pharaoh and the angel who comes to claim Egypt's firstborn on the night of that first Passover: "Now/Let my people go, land of Goshen/Go/I will be with thee, bush of fire/Blood/Running red and strong, down the Nile/Plague/Darkness three days long, hail to fire/ … So let it be done/To kill the first born Pharaoh son/I'm creeping death."
Elsewhere, however, that consistent fixation on alienation and mortality wanders into much darker places. On "Cyanide," for example, lyrics could be heard to glorify suicide as a way out of a dark life: "Empty they say/Death won't you let me stay/Empty they say/ … Suicide I've already died/You're just the funeral I've been waiting for/Cyanide living dead inside/Break this empty shell forevermore."
And then there's "Enter Sandman," of course, a sinister, Freddy Krueger-esque song about a stalking specter lurking beneath the beds of unsuspecting children who just want to say their prayers and sleep.
And that brings us to a whole 'nother aspect of this film.
Eye-popping stage spectacle aside, what really sets Through the Never apart from other concert documentaries is Team Metallica's decision to weave a surreal and macabre horror-meets-fantasy narrative in between songs. One might describe it as a mini-movie in and of itself; but it could probably be better compared to a concept music video that spans all of the film's 16 songs instead of just one track on MTV or YouTube.
Early on, a young roadie named Trip is ordered by a grizzled supervisor to take a plastic jug of gasoline to one of the band's trucks, which ran out of fuel before it got to the show. There's something in the truck the band needs before the end of the night, Trip's told. Reluctantly, the hoodie- and bandana-wearing roadie clambers into his decrepit van and sets out in search of the truck that's stranded elsewhere in the city.
After nearly running a stoplight, Trip notices a bloody handprint on a road sign—right before he's T-boned by an oncoming car. The van gets flipped and destroyed, and things don't go very well for Trip's face, either. The man who hit him is clearly in shock, but it's not because of the accident. Furtively looking back the direction he came from, he continues to flee in obvious terror.
Trip grabs the gas can—as well as a voodoo doll-like figure with a noose around its neck that's been hanging from his mirror—and sets out on foot. He soon discovers why the man was running: A frenzied mob led by mysterious men on horseback wearing WWI-style gas masks are about to confront riot police.
The forces clash violently. (We see policemen set on fire as well as rioters beaten mercilessly.) The rioters aren't technically zombies, but they behave with similarly feral ferocity. And as you might guess, Trip can't or won't just quietly sneak away. No, he lobs a rock at one of the riders' head. Mr. Apocalypse isn't the least bit happy with that, and soon he's pursuing Trip.
After that, things get even weirder—and much more violent. Among other things, Trip discovers a massacre where about 25 people have been hanged; he lights himself on fire to take on his pursuers, but is seemingly beaten to death; he's then resurrected by that voodoo doll (which has now come to life) for a final battle with the masked man; and that combat ends up shattering skyscrapers in a bombastic final showdown.
As for the band, well, they play on, though the final conflagration temporarily halts to the proceedings when the stage more or less collapses and a crewman catches fire. But after a brief break, they're right back at it.
Trip? He dutifully delivers the contents of that truck, but not before we've been treated to some serious violence, some skewed spirituality and about four f-words.
Nothing Else Matters
It's obvious to most by now that Metallica's three-decade catalog of smashes dives deeply into some pretty dark plays. These guys can say some significant things about finding meaning in life when the specter of death looms. But they can also wallow in the growling "glories" of nihilism, aggression and alienation.
Layering Trip's mysterious, viscerally violent quest over the top of those songs puts a graphic, macabre exclamation point on Metallica Through the Never. It is indeed a trip—an hour-and-a-half journey into a sonic maelstrom full of angst and anger, cacophony and coffins.