Metallica at the Movies
The rock legends have blazed a creative trail from El Cerrito to IMAX.
Thirty years ago, a group of young musicians moved into a tiny house in the East Bay, set up their equipment in the garage, and set their sights on becoming one of the biggest hard rock bands ever.
The humble little house, now known as the Metallica Mansion, is still there, although the band members have moved into the kind of actual mansions that can be afforded after selling 100 million albums, and playing countless sold-out stadiums around the world.
More than three decades into its run, Metallica continues to try new things: The band has recorded a live album with the San Francisco Symphony, and recently played its first-ever shows in China, then headed to Harlem for an intimate concert at the famed Apollo Theater. And this month, the band will release a feature film, Metallica Through the Never, in IMAX cinemas around the world. Both an epic concert film and a surreal narrative, Through the Never uses many forms of new-technology 3-D cameras, high-definition sound, and an enormous high-tech stage) to create one of the most ambitious rock movies of all time.
Hitting IMAX theaters on September 27 and standard theaters on October 4, Through the Never follows one of the band’s roadies through an apocalyptic fever dream outside of Metallica’s sold-out concert in Mexico City. (Think Pink Floyd’s The Wall crossed with The Band’s The Last Waltz.) An accompanying soundtrack album hits record stores and iTunes on October 1.
In the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to feature Metallica’s lead singer, James Hetfield, and guitarist, Kirk Hammett, in Diablo. For this story, founding band member and drummer Lars Ulrich called me from the road, somewhere outside of Shanghai, to talk about Through the Never and Metallica’s constant drive to push its creative envelope.
Q: You’ve just played your first shows in China, which is par for Metallica’s course, in that you always seem to be doing new things.
A: China has been really cool. Shanghai is a city full of life and energy and culture. It’s a really invigorating place. We have been going through a phase the last few years where we have been exploring new things. We love poking our heads out of our comfort zone and finding situations that are a little edgy. We’re very fortunate that we have the capacity to do that.
We’re very appreciative that the success that we have had can let us go into these uncharted territories. It keeps us alive and creatively curious, and it’s pretty awesome that 32 years into this, we can continue to stick our nose into places we haven’t been, or shouldn’t go. [Laughs]
Q: The spirit of creativity is something that’s very apparent in your new film, Through the Never. I’ve always found that concert films have a hard time capturing the experience of a live concert. So it’s interesting to see you adding this surreal narrative to your music, to create a new kind of experience on film.
A: We did not feel that the world needs another documentary-style concert film about a rock ’n’ roll band. You know, folding the lunch meat on a piece of bread, and here we are in a prayer circle, and here we are getting stretched before we take the stage.
So what else can you do? We thought of two things: first, bringing a narrative into it and having a story to tell. And instead of the live concert footage being filmed from the audience’s point of view, we wanted to bring the cameras up on stage so the audience feels like it’s onstage with Metallica instead of watching Metallica from the audience.
Q: Can you talk about the technology used in the film, specifically the 3-D photography for IMAX and advanced sound work?
A: Yes, the 3-D effect we went for was more of an immersion effect, rather than the traditional thing where it’s: Here I am sticking my drumstick in your face. IMAX came to us about 15 years ago about doing a specialty concert film. The cameras at that time were too big and bulky, and it would have been a nightmare.
The idea circled back around again three years ago, and it was the right time because of the advancement in the cameras as well as the next-level sound experience. We spent as much time, effort, and resources in bringing the sound up to the level of the visual experience. It’s pretty exciting: I was listening to the last cut a couple of weeks ago on the soundstage where they filmed the last James Bond film. It’s all next-level stuff.
Q: I heard James Cameron [director of Avatar and Titanic] consulted on how to use the 3-D cameras. Why?
A: Obviously, if you’re doing a 3-D undertaking, the road leads through James Cameron, as he has been the most innovative with 3-D. So in the early stages, there were meetings with James and his team about how to use the cameras and technologies.
There are two ways you can do a 3-D film: You can shoot it in 2-D and convert it later into 3-D, or you can shoot it in 3-D and go for that next-level experience throughout. We opted for the latter, shooting it with 3-D cameras and a whole bunch of technical stuff that’s way above my head. That technology is constantly changing and evolving. I’m sure the equipment we used a year ago is already outdated.
Q: The last time we spoke, it was about your acting role in the HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn [filmed in the East Bay], in which you played an innovative director making a cutting-edge film
in the 1930s. Is there any connection between those experiences?
A: I wish I could tell you that there was. Hemingway and Gellhorn was an amazing project; it was a great experience, but the Metallica film was already in the works. I learned a lot from director Phil Kaufman, and one of the reasons I wanted to do that was to be in a situation where I’m unfamiliar, but surrounded by people of that caliber, so I could just be a sponge and absorb that experience.
Q: One of my favorite concert films is Gimme Shelter, about the Rolling Stones’ infamous concert at the Altamont Speedway. There’s the amazing music, but also it’s a powerful document of a scary and tragic event. What concert films influenced Through the Never?
A: I would rank Gimme Shelter up at the very top, seeing all the footage of the Stones behind the scenes, helicopter rides, and in the editing room, and it’s such an amazing snapshot of an amazing period of time.
Also, The Band’s The Last Waltz is a reference as a concert with a real emphasis on the performance. What’s happened over the past couple of decades is that there has been a lot of quick editing and shorter attention span stuff that came out of the MTV era. Now, I love MTV, and MTV has been responsible for a lot of Metallica’s success. But The Last Waltz is edited like a movie: You get nice long shots, and it’s not edited in that machine-gun style.
Finally, it’s impossible not to think of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. Those were real films, and that’s what we wanted to do.
Q: I wanted to make sure we touched on Metallica’s East Bay heritage. I heard that you guys rented out the entire Oracle Arena to rehearse for the concerts.
A: Yes. Everything about this film was thought out. We didn’t just film the last few shows of a world tour. So the stage we built was the size of an aircraft carrier, and we built it first on Treasure Island in the old seaplane hangar. Then, the second round of rehearsals was at Oracle, where we have always had great experiences, both playing there and going there as fans of music to see our favorite bands. We’ve spent a lot of great time in that building over the years.
Q: Last year, I ran into James Hetfield at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, and I’ve interviewed Kirk Hammett about growing up in El Sobrante and all his haunts and hangouts. What are your favorite spots in the East Bay?
A: My fiancée [model Jessica Miller] and I go almost every week to the Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley. We drive over from Marin, and watch art house movies and these cool under-the-radar films that we love to see. Hit a restaurant, grab a Starbucks, and park ourselves at the Shattuck for two or three films.
Listen, I could talk to you for six hours about the East Bay, with our history in El Cerrito, going back to those crazy days in the 1980s. But these days, Shattuck night is our favorite night out.
The East Bay Metallica Tour
These local spots have played major roles in Metallica’s 32-year history.
Metallica Mansion: This tiny house at 3132 Carlson Boulevard in El Cerrito was home to Metallica during its breakthrough years in the mid–1980s. The band’s classic albums Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets were written and rehearsed in the garage.
Ruthie’s Inn: This long-gone nightclub at 2618 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley was a place in the 1980s to see punk and metal bands, such as Dead Kennedys and Social Distortion. Metallica’s Ruthie’s shows, featuring original performances of Kill ’Em All and Ride the Lightning, are the stuff bootleg recorders’ dreams are made of.
Oakland Coliseum: The home of the A’s and Raiders is not the fanciest stadium anymore, but it’s certainly a significant landmark in rock ‘n’ roll history. Led Zeppelin played its last U.S. concerts here at a Day on the Green festival in 1977. And Metallica played three Day on the Green shows, opening for the Scorpions in 1985, headlining in 1991, and co-headlining in 1992 with Guns N’ Roses.