The last time Metallica agreed to appear in a feature-length documentary, the results were more revealing than its members might have hoped. Chronicling the creation of 2003’s St. Anger, as well as the group therapy sessions that made that album’s completion possible, Some Kind Of Monster depicted its subjects as vulnerable, insecure artists struggling to recapture a collaborative mojo they’d long since lost. (It was the rock doc as breakup movie, even if it didn’t actually end with the four musicians parting ways.) The band returns to the big screen—the really big one, in this case—with Metallica: Through The Never, which is so fundamentally different from Some Kind Of Monster that it plays like a bona fide corrective. This stereoscopic IMAX vanity project presents the titular rockers not as men, but as living legends, playing the hits at a gigantic venue, for thousands of bellowing diehard fans. In place of introspection, there is only lionizing spectacle; if Monster laid bare the wounded egos of metal’s biggest stars, Never simply re-inflates them. There’s nothing revealing about the movie—except, perhaps, that James Hetfield and company have allowed the roaring approval of the faithful to drown out any lingering self-doubt about their output.
Shot using a whopping 24 cameras, on what the producers are claiming is the biggest indoor stage ever constructed, Through The Never plays like The Black Album of concert films: It’s enormous, slick, and occasionally rousing, but largely fails to capture the sheer intensity of Metallica’s superior ’80s work. Director Nimród Antal (Vacancy, Predators) lends the footage, culled from several consecutive shows, action-movie grandeur. In a novel alternative to the usual backstage filler and interview snippets, Through The Never crosscuts between the band’s performance and a fictional subplot in which a roadie (Dane DeHaan, from Chronicle and The Place Beyond The Pines) braves an urban wasteland during an epic battle between anarchists and riot cops. These scenes are muscularly staged by Antal, even as they feel like something of a distraction, interrupting the flow of the concert.
Perhaps the pulpy narrative material is meant to compensate for the mercenary professionalism of the performers, who tear through their career-spanning set list with the mechanical proficiency of a veteran-touring act. Coming to the stage to the epic fanfare of “The Ecstasy Of Gold” from The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly—as they have for decades—Metallica make all the expected stops, moving from tight, early ragers like “Creeping Death” and “For Whom The Bell Tolls” to the slicker, lousier tunes of the Bob Rock era. (Admittedly, “The Memory Remains” sounds a lot cooler here than it does on record, if only because the crowd helps out during the lullaby part.) To call the stage show elaborate would be an understatement: Storming the U2-style arena, surrounded on all sides by cheering fans, the band augments its anthems with pyrotechnics, tesla coils, and stage props worthy of Spinal Tap. Some of these flourishes aren’t just silly but counterproductive. For example, by introducing “One” with a flurry of Apocalypse Now special effects, they render meaningless the staunchly anti-war sentiments of the song. Late in the set, the stage implodes in a blatantly phony mishap, “forcing” the band to rally for an intimate encore. “We don’t need all this fancy stuff anyway,” Hetfield declares, as though he hadn’t just spent a couple hours allowing his musicianship to be upstaged by theatrical gimmicks. For these aging masters of puppets, what could be more therapeutic than resting triumphantly on laurels?