TORONTO – On the heels of “Avatar,” Hollywood went slightly crazy for 3D, and between weak post-production conversions and unnecessary use of the process, they have already started to kill any interest the audience has in it, which is a shame. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” makes a strong case for the dramatic potential of the format, and now Nimrod Antal’s “Metallica Through The Never” reinforces just how visceral an experience it can be when used correctly.
This morning’s screening of the film at the Toronto Film Festival was held in the IMAX theater at the Scotiabank complex, and I can honestly say it was one of the most technically impressive screenings I’ve seen in IMAX anywhere. The soundtrack alone is such an intense experience, such an assault, that I started laughing trying to imagine the horrified crowd sitting in a tender, quiet Iranian drama next door. I’ve said before that the sound systems in IMAX theaters are as important as the size of the screen, and it sounded like this film gave that system a workout it’s never had before.
The movie, which was co-written by Antal along with James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, and Robert Trujillo, builds a surreal dramatic narrative around some of the most amazing concert footage I’ve ever seen. I believe “U2 3D” actually made my end-of-the-year list the year it came out because it was such a knockout of an experience in the theater, but that was just straight live performance. Here, Dane De Haan (“Chronicle,” “The Place Beyond The Pines”) plays a roadie named Trip who is told at the start of the film that a truck has run out of gas somewhere in the city, and he needs to go help them so they can bring whatever they’re carrying, which Metallica needs for their performance that night. It’s an interesting use of the young actor. He never speaks a word in the film. It hinges entirely on his face, his eyes, his body language, and he is magnetic enough to pull it off.
At first, the city he moves through appears to be completely empty, a ghost town, but little by little, he starts spotting signs of violence, and then eventually turns a corner and runs right into a crazy street riot between cops and an aggressive, terrifying group of lunatics, including a nightmarish Rider in a gas mask on the back of a horse that looks like Death incarnate. The story never really adds up to anything, but it works as a sort of fantasy visualization of the music. And honestly, the reason to see this film is for the music.
There was a time when I would have listed Metallica among my favorite bands. My freshman year of college, my roommate and I went to several different shows on the “And Justice For All” tour, the last moment where I was really what I would consider a “fan,” but they were a constant soundtrack for me all the way through high school, and I think their early albums and some of their smaller oddities like the “Garage Days” collection still stand up as some of the defining metal albums. James Hetfield has the perfect metal voice, and watching the performance footage in this film, I’m struck by the fact that they’re still just as fast and just as intense as ever. The old stuff sounds amazing when played live, and while I wouldn’t want to ruin the pleasure of hearing how the set list builds, rest assured that most of what you’re going to hear in the film is what could be considered “classic” Metallica. They played many of my favorite tracks of theirs, and they all sounded incredible.
As for the film itself, I am deeply impressed by the way Nimrod Antal keeps the energy up for the entire running time. He stages the mayhem in the streets with a real sense of abandon. It feels like the city is on the verge of falling apart, and the Rider is a particularly creepy image. He also makes great use of De Haan’s physicality. It’s almost like this is the sort of thing you would picture if you were at the concert and you’d had a little too much herbal assistance and you found yourself just imagining the craziest things that could be going on while this music plays.
The concert stuff is equally impressive as he gives you a better-than-the-best-seat-in-the-house experience, and this is where I think 3D and IMAX can offer something no other theater can. If they would shoot more concerts this way, I would go. I normally can’t afford to compete with other ticket buyers in LA who have far deeper pockets than mine, so I basically quit going to see live music about ten years ago. It’s just too crazy in LA. But if I can pay $17 and go see something that has the same effect on me that this did today, I would do that for pretty much every band I like. Antal shoots the film with a curious eye, getting in close for all the little details you’d never see even if you had front row seats in the arena. Bassist Robert Trujillo looks like a guy who was designed in a lab to be a metal musician, and he has this great crazy hunched-over gorilla-with-a-guitar thing going on as he bounces around the stage. Hetfield looks amazing these days, in better health than I can ever remember seeing him, and he sounds just like he did 20 years ago. I have no idea what kind of stainless steel vocal cords he has, but I am impressed at his ability to still go full blast. When Antal gets close to Lars Ulrich, you get a real sense of the speed and power he’s playing with, and you see every ridiculous face he makes as he plays, which was always one of the things that cracked me up about the band.
If 17-year-old me were to review the film, he’d probably bellow “A+” while banging his head. Speaking with a wee bit more objectivity now, I still think it’s a dazzling aural/visual experience, as great a showcase for the potential of 3D IMAX as you could ask for, even if it feels somewhat slight when all is said and done. If you have any interest at all in the band or their music, you owe it to yourself to see this on the biggest screen you can find. Even if you’re not a fan, it is an overwhelming few hours in a theater. I didn’t expect to have the time to see this one during the festival, and only went because they cancelled today’s “Witching and Bitching” press screening. I’m so glad they did, though, because I walked out of the Scotiabank with my cheeks sore from smiling the entire time this played. If you do end up seeing it, wear a cup, because it will rock your balls off.
It is a one-of-a-kind movie, and here’s hoping more bands look at this and find their own way to harness the potential of the format.
“Metallica: Through The Never” arrives in theaters on October 4, 2013.