News Column

The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif. Lib at Large column

September 19, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 19--Metallica, the hometown heavy metal band that blows the "mellow Marin" music image to smithereens, screened its bombastic new movie, "Metallica: Through the Never," at the Smith Rafael Film Center on Tuesday night, the opening salvo of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

This was the public premiere of the band's 3-D, IMAX spectacular, but "premiere," in this case, is being used rather loosely.

The screening followed the world premiere on Sept. 9 at the Toronto Film Festival, the "official premiere" at the Metreon in San Francisco the night before the Marin screening, not to mention the Russian premiere in Moscow on Sept. 14.

Still, it was nice of the band's founders,

drummer Lars Ulrich and lead singer-guitarist James Hetfield, both longtime Marin residents, to find a night in their manic promotional schedule to show their movie in their home county.

A hybrid concert-feature film, "Through the Never," titled after a 1991 album track, fuses Metallica playing its greatest hits at 2012 concerts in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Edmonton, Alberta, with the surreal story of a young roadie named Trip, played by young actor Dane DeHaan, who is sent out into a nightmare urban landscape (think Detroit) to retrieve a mysterious bag and bring it back to the arena more or less in one piece.

The movie, which the band financed itself, reportedly for more than $30 million, ends without revealing the contents of the bag. Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo offered a suitably terrifying alternate ending.

"They open the bag and see the price tag for this film," he cracked.

In the live concert scenes, the band struts and poses on a stage the size of a small truck farm, firing off its trademark machine gun guitar riffs punctuated by a bass and drum assault that sounds like mortar rounds exploding on the seat next to you.

The leather-lunged Hetfield howls through hits like "Cyanide," "Creeping Death" and "Master of Puppets." During the song "Ride the Lightning," Tesla coils come down from the ceiling, firing bolts of at an electric chair. A man and woman try to fight their way out of coffins in another segment, and a huge statue of Lady Justice crumbles like Ozymandian ruins during "And Justice for All."

"Being able to embrace the dark side shines a light on it in a way," Hetfield explained. In answer to an audience question about Metallica's morbid fascination with death, Hetfield said, "As we all know, death is a part of living. It's the ultimate in fear. It's been written about forever and it's been a theme in my life, fear, questioning the unknown."

Paying $85 a ticket, Metallica fans sold out the show faster than a speed metal guitar solo. The screening was a coup for film festival founder and executive director Mark Fishkin, who praised the band for being "courageous, creative, passionate."

Ulrich, a film buff who has been active with the festival over the years, is under no illusions about Metallica's 90-minute contribution to cinema history, described by one critic as "a silly, diverting fantasy."

"I was just thinking about all the deep intellectual conversations about film that have taken place on this stage over the years," he said during a Q&A session at the Rafael after the screening. "That seems like a distant memory right now."

He and Hetfield were onstage with Trujillo, shy lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, baby-faced DeHaan, whose thin frame was engulfed in a black leather jacket, and the movie's 39-year-old director, Nimrod Antal, a Hungarian American who had previously helmed the acclaimed Hungarian-language film "Kontroll" in 2003 and a couple of American studio pictures, most recently "Predators."

An unabashed Metallica fan, Antal came up with the story arc and wrote the screenplay, which amounts to a series of action sequences interspersed with elements of horror and fantasy. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers advised: "Don't try to get it. Live it."

I agree, except I'd forget the "live it" part. In one scene, for instance, Trip wanders in between a mob of stone-throwing rioters on one side and a phalanx of police in full SWAT team regalia on the other. In revenge for a series of ghastly hangings, he hurls a brick at the apparent leader, an evil horseback rider wearing a gas mask and wielding a sledge hammer. The horseman spends the rest of the movie trying to bury the hammer in Trip's skull, reminding me of the homicidal ax-wielding brothers in TV's "Breaking Bad."

Hetfield said it's one of his favorite scenes, calling the horseback rider "the embodiment of hate."

"(Trip) realizes this is not OK, and he stands up for humanity and throws a brick," he said.

For me, it brought to mind recent events in real life that are far more horrible and frightening. For one, the civil war in Syria, in which 1,400 innocent men, women and children were murdered in a sarin gas attack. And the thugs on camels and horses who attacked anti-Mubarak demonstrators in Egypt's Tahrir Square during the early days of Arab Spring.

At a reception after the screening, I mentioned this to Ulrich, who stared at the ceiling for a moment before responding.

"Obviously the movie is ambiguous and vague and abstract enough that it can be applied to almost any world events going on around us," he told me. "I've been all over the world the last two weeks listening to different responses to this film and people say all kinds of great stuff, and I'm not going to talk anybody out of anything they get out of it. I think that ultimately the best films are the ones that allow people to paint their own pictures, to get out of them what they want."

The morning after the screening, the band flew off to Brazil to play a quick show in Rio, leaving within seven hours for a flight to New York and a gig at the Apollo Theatre, one of only a handful of rock bands to play the famed R&B and soul club.

Ulrich, a native of Denmark, and Hetfield are on the road a lot these days. But when they aren't they've called Marin home for the better part of two decades, giving lie to Marin as the laid-back lair of hippie-era bands like the Grateful Dead.

"Everything I believe the Bay Area represents in terms of opportunity and culture and social issues, openness and creativity are prevalent in Marin," Ulrich said. "Marin is full of eccentrics and quirky, cool people. There's no place I'd rather live."

"Metallica: Through the Never," opens in IMAX theaters Sept. 27, and in 3-D in wider release on Oct. 4.

Contact Paul Liberatore via email at liberatore@marinij.com; follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LibLarge. Follow his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/ad_lib.

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