The last time the men in Metallica made a documentary, they let the cameras into their therapy sessions, their private lives, their struggles with their families. It wasn't good for their image, but it made for a compelling film. This time, they reverse tactics. In Metallica: Through the Never, the most immersive concert film ever, glimpses of the band offstage will give you only the Saturday-morning-cartoon versions. There are days when playing metal must feel like a catch-22: Your music is at its best when it's tapping into people's pain, anger, and frustrations, but if you display any of those emotions as a flesh-and-blood human, fans call you a whiny bitch.
Whatever controversies Metallica has stirred up — about its image, its crusades against file-sharing, its late-period work — there's no question that it remains a band that loves to play. How hard must it be to keep your enthusiasm when you've been performing the same song for more than four decades? Apparently not very hard when those songs are "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Ride the Lightning," and "Battery." James Hetfield can work the crowd with just a growl. It might make you say to hell with movie theaters' "no talking, no texting" social contract. You want to get up on your seat and pump your fist with the crowd onscreen.
It's immersive but not intimate. The concert is cut with fiction-narrative footage showing the saga of Dane DeHaan as Trip, a member of the band's crew sent on a quest through abandoned city streets to recover a truck he's told contains something Metallica needs for its show. It's a wordless performance in the face of increasingly surreal circumstances, like a good, long-form music video you might have seen on 120 Minutes in the days when MTV was more like the art kid girls secretly had a crush on and less like the quarterback from a wealthy family who owns a hot tub. To call Trip simply a roadie diminishes him. He has the kind of religious zealotry to do Metallica's bidding that makes martyrs — better he burn himself alive than Metallica do without. Who is he to question? He's never done anything as good as "Master of Puppets."
No knock against DeHaan, a good actor who anchors even the dopiest fantasy sequences, but whenever he's onscreen, audiences are sure to miss the concert itself and maybe even wonder why the filmmakers didn't focus on the real roadies to create a counterpoint to the music. Midset, the crew must assemble a 30-foot statue of Justice, then demolish it at just the right chord and in such a way that the gargantuan rolling head doesn't crush Ulrich's kit. Consider the precision necessary to send a stuntman on fire across the stage while rigging crashes down around him, all without anyone getting hurt. No matter how skilled they are at their jobs, there must be enormous pressure to pull it off right, something Hetfield probably knows too well after a pyrotechnic accident 20 years ago caused him to suffer second- and third-degree burns.
As for the music: There's a good chance you already know how you feel about it, and there isn't much I can tell you. At IMAX prices, it might be cheaper to buy an album or two, but that won't replicate the Through the Never experience. It's taken just a couple of years for 3-D to go from the future of cinema to just another way to charge more for the same old crap. When Christopher Nolan says you won't need special glasses to see his new movie, that's taken as a mark of integrity. When 3-D is announced for The Lone Ranger, it's a confirmation of your worst suspicions. Now comes Through the Never to remind us of the value of the technology done right. This is a movie made for people who mash themselves up against those steel crowd-control barriers at concerts and still don't think they're close enough. Those faithful are rewarded here with a better look at the texture of the drum skins and the battered stock of the guitar, all close up enough to for you to fake a sense memory of what playing might feel like. Sadly, the film is only 90 minutes, which seems brief for a band with so deep a catalog.
As for Trip — I feel for the guy. I don't know a thing about him, what led him to Metallica, or how he feels at the end of his journey, but I can't help but empathize whenever he's onscreen. We're both missing the real show.