Metallica: Through the Neverby Kavish Chetty / 03.10.2013
Through the Never is the last, desperate attempt of Metallica to recoup the lost insignias of their rebellion. Perhaps it was once imaginable that this group of abraded youths, these longhairs with Lovecraft fixations, posed a vague threat to the manicured orders of American suburbia. But to watch this new concert film – a vulgar wedding-cake of special effects, surrealist intercuts, electrifying guitar solos – is to see a genre in its aftermath; all the signs of counter-culture easily absorbed into the fabric of the mainstream. Through the Never does more than simply show four icons of aging masculinity, gracelessly clinging to the flotsam of their youth. Even more: it reveals the tragic proximity of heavy metal to camp – Kirk Hammett at half-a-century of age now struts about in a sleeveless leather waistcoast; a peroxide-platinum goatee takes up melancholy refuge on James Hetfield’s chin; and Lars Ulrich’s shoulder-length Danish mane is replaced by an incurious bald-spot, which commands a centrifugal force as he batters at his drums, flat tongue popping out of his mouth. With Through the Never, the overriding impression is of “Spinal Tap” bereft of its redemptive ironies.
The object of this movie is total immersion. Filmed with multiple, swooping cameras over five nights, it aims to condense and compact the experience of a heavy metal concert into ninety minutes of electric pleasure. Yet, the impression is one of a sweatless detachment. Concert films can offer a panoptic vantage: your seeing-eye is the omnipresent vision which lurches from high-angles across stages, diving in to glimpse fretboards or kick-drums, pulling back to take in a bird’s-eye of the spectacle. But what it can’t do is give you the corporeal thrill of a rock show: being meshed between perspiring bodies or vibrating with the tremor of a crowd’s anticipation, feeling the singularity of that unrepeatable moment, which no track-list of carefully-curated mp3s could repeat. Through the Never, then, becomes a form of superb simulation. As the camera lurks around the stalls, you look at the real non-anarchic, non-threatening mainstream who make up Metallica’s audience – just proper losers, some of them. Metallica feels this restlessness; that they’re no longer edgy and neither is their audience. To manage this, Through the Never has its own in-built wish-fulfillment narrative.
This takes the form of a fictional set of intercuts, whereby a young and mute roadie (Dane DeHaan) is sent on a perilous quest to salvage the contents of a broken-down concert-truck. Along the way, his odyssey descends into surrealistic madness – smears of bloody palm-prints on bus-stops, images of military conflict march across his vision, a horseman of the apocalypse trots into view; and at the centerpiece of the film is a stand-off between a gang of warring, anarchic adolescents and a troop of riot police. The gang wears bandanas draped across their mouths and noses, like the roadie, and therefore immediately identify themselves with Metallica. Then, both parties spring into mutual carnage, the police brandishing batons and shields, and the youth coming at them with Molotov cocktails, crowbars and fists. The imagery is of apiece with the popular imagination’s idea of anti-institutional rioting, but that Metallica can so unselfconsciously employ this trope as a way to strengthen their edge is a little more than absurd – adjacent to these charged scenes of anarchy, an anti-authoritarian violence possessed of almost revolutionary purpose, you have Metallica’s lavish concert spectacle, and its drugged-up, drunk gig-goers, placidly performing the aggressive rituals of heavy metal… the result is satiric; it only serves to reaffirm the banal gestures by which pop music appropriates depoliticised images to aggrandise itself.
I mistakenly believed that this film was a documentary, like 2003’s Some Kind of Monster, which invited the audience into a group-therapy sesh with a band of fractured egos and frail senses of self-worth; a band confronting its commercial popularity and existential irrelevance. Through the Never, if it is to be taken as a companion piece, is a testament to a stubborn refusal to surrender. All this being said, the music itself is precisely executed – running through a catalogue of abused classics. The drumming is percussive and explosive, Hammett’s guitar solos are slippery and bright with distortion; Trujillo’s stance recalls that of a bass-playing amphibian; and Hetfield’s vocals are an aged thing which technology cannot hide. The concert stage is enormous, bursting into pyrotechnic displays. And the band inaugurate with “Creeping Death”, and then run through a three-decade career of singles: For Whom the Bells Tolls, One, Fuel, Memory Remains, Ride the Lightning, and on and on. Two concert films opened in South Africa this week: Through the Never and One Direction’s This is Us. Seeming to hang on either sides of a vast abyss, both films are, in fact, very much of the same spirit: that of an ultra-commodified music’s corrupt soul.