Tools of the Imagination — Metallica, Through The Never

Metallica, Through The Never
Directed by Nimrod Antal, Produced by Charlotte Huggins, Written by Nimrod Antal and Metallica, released 2013

All that is, was, and will be

*Spoiler Warning*

This is a hard movie to review for many reasons.  The first is that, well, I tend not to review live-action stuff.  Tools of the Imagination is meant to shed some light on animation and toys, stuff that while not specifically the purview of kids, is somewhat the result of a linger sense of child-like wonderment.  Secondly, because I’m struggling to remain unbiased.  I consider myself a huge Metallica fan – some fans’ opinions notwithstanding – and thus it becomes hard to appreciate the movie on its own merit without dipping into my fandom of the band that inspired the film.  And thirdly because this is NOT the movie I thought I was going to see.

If you haven’t seen the original trailer for Through the Never, the audience is treated to a narration of our protagonist (played subtly but excellently by Dane DeHaan) that paints the film as being some kind of coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of some sort of social unrest/upheaval/war.  In the current trend of musicals and movies set around bands’ discography (Mama Mia for ABBA, American Idiot for Greenday, Jersey Boys for the Four Seasons), I made the mistake of thinking the Boys in Black had decided to get in on the action and give us some sort of Metallica musical.

This was not to be.

What we’re instead treated to is, for all intents and purposes, concert footage with a really ambitious music video interspersed in sixty to ninety second spurts.  Both are very well done (more on that below), but that left the movie feeling very underwhelming because I was hoping such a high-concept band like Metallica was going to deliver a stirring narrative.  What remains, however, is still very worthwhile.

Story – 2 out of 5
The story is about as bare-bones as you can get and still be comprehensible.  Trip, our intrepid protagonist, is a roadie at a Metallica show (it isn’t entirely clear if he works for the stadium or the band, but we do get the impression his employment may not be entirely legal).  He delivers a package and as the concert is starting up, he gets sent off to find a wayward truck with a crucial MacGuffin.  Trip goes out, gets into an accident, and finds himself stranded in the middle of a city in the midst of widespread and very violent protests.  Trip becomes a target in this protests after he throws a brick at a murdering horseback rider in a gas mask.  Trip eludes capture for a bit, only to end up cornered.  He employs an escape that is as brilliant and hardcore as it is stupid, ends up dying and getting brought back, which sets up a final confrontation with the horseman that simultaneously blows up Metallica’s stage show.

Characters – 1 out of 5
While I really liked DeHaan’s performance of Trip, there really is no character or character development what so ever.  There’s a marionette that plays into the story’s third act which is clever but again doesn’t really gives us anything to work with.  Lastly, the figure of the masked horseman is completely enigmatic.  While all of this makes for evocative imagery, it leaves a lot to be desired as far as developed characters.

Acting – 3 out of 5
Almost all of the story is conveyed through the music, the imagery, and DeHaan’s acting.  With no spoken lines in the film (the trailer’s narration not only isn’t in the movie, but amounts to more dialogue than is in the movie), DeHaan still manages to create a very identifiable character in Trip.  It’s a testament to both the director and DeHaan that this very minimalist performance works so well.

Visuals – 4 out of 5
Much like the acting, the visuals are really superb, not just in the ‘story’ sequences but also during the concert.  The framing and cinematography of the Metallica concert that is the majority of the movie is expertly done.  The visuals are engaging and dynamic, with transitions from one shot or focal point to the next proving to be very innovative and clever.  Somewhat like visual puzzles, you will be looking at the screen, not entirely sure what you’re looking at when it will suddenly hit you.

Music – 2 out of 5
If you’re a Metallica fan, then the sound and music will blow you away.  Since the ‘story’ events tend to occur during the transition from one song to the next, it’s often the opening notes of a given song that will set the stage for what’s about to happen in the story, giving serious gravity to the events.  Sadly, if you aren’t ‘fluent’ in Metallica’s musical language, you may be left a little clueless why everybody else suddenly just gasped.

There’s also an issue with pacing in the film.  While normally this might be a story issue, since this is essentially a filmed concert, it seems appropriate to address here.  The songs are, by and large, played in their entirety.  As a concert, that’s great but as a film, it quickly gets to the point where a stanza or two is all that’s really needed to get the full emotional impact with regards to the story, and yet the song will keep going for way longer than seems necessary.

There are also a couple of points where two and even three songs are played back-to-back in the concert before we return to the ‘story’.  If you’re invested in the story, these periods can really drag, no matter how much you like the music.

And the inclusion of ‘Nothing Else Matters’ still baffles me.  I love the song, but it’s such a jarring change of pace given what’s happening in the movie and in the concert, it just comes off shoe-horned.

Overall – 2 out of 5
I really enjoyed this movie, but I am squarely in its target demographic.  I’m a Metallica fan and I enjoy vivid cinematography, so I loved every minute of it.  At the same time, I’m really disappointed in what the trailer suggested the film would be, versus what it delivered.  I was really hoping for more story, more characters, and less concert.  I dug the concert and enjoyed it tremendously, don’t get me wrong, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting, and hoping for, Metallica’s Mama Mia.

I am not a Metallica fan (which is news to me)

I am a firm believer that fandom does not come with a uniform to wear, or even a uniform look.  While there may be trappings of a fandom, one’s enjoying/love of something is not defined by a narrow margin of attributes and attitudes.

I say this because this past weekend, I went to see Metallica, Through The Never.  And while there, I was treated to a variety of derisive sneers and scoffs of disapproval by fellow fans who went to the same showing.

I’ve loved Metallica since high school.  I can still remember the exact spot on Interstate 440 when I heard the opening sitar notes of Wherever I May Roam, pretty much kicking off my love of the Boys in Black.  From there, it was pretty much down hill.  I saw Metallica live in Louisville Kentucky in 2004.  Metallica’s inspired a great deal of my writing.  So I feel confident in saying I am a Metallica fan.

But from the moment I got in line for the movie, a pair of long-haired, denim & leather-clad metal heads disapproved of my presence.  I found this especially amusing since the movie was showing a predominantly…how shall I say, urban theater.  Through The Never was showing on a screen nestled between showings of Battle of the Year and Baggage Claim, so there were already more than enough ‘what are you doing here’ looks going around.

We go into the theater and it’s just the three of us.  The two of them are jazzed and whispering louder than most humans are capable of while I’m sitting alone.  At one point, they call back to me, asking if I’m ‘here to see Metallica’, as though I might be lost.  When I answered in the affirmative, I was asked what was my favorite album.  Citing ReLoad as my favorite, they both laughed derisively and whispered (once again far louder than speaking normally) ‘Poser’.
It’s always weird to be reminded that you aren’t a card-carrying stereotype.

Supermusic

Before I begin, I want to say that I had a simply amazing time at Anime Mid-Atlantic this past weekend.  The panels were wonderful, the audiences at my panels were enthusiastic and responsive, it was great seeing friends there, and was overall about as good a time as one can have at one of these things.  When I imagine the damn-near perfect anime convention, I think of Anime Mid-Atlantic and this year especially.

Now, on to the blog.

Man of Steel came out on Friday.  It’s the new reboot of the Superman franchise and the long-rumored kickoff point of the Justice League franchise, Warner Bros/DC’s answer to the Disney/Marvel’s Avengers Project.  Now, I didn’t care for the movie on a number of levels, but one principle reason was the music.

Going into this movie, a lot of movie critics and speculators had talked about how John Williams’ Superman Theme from the 1978 film was and is one of the greatest, most heroic pieces of music ever written.  And they’re right.  Give it a listen:

That, right there, is quite simply one of the best pieces of music ever.  Hands down.  Bar none.  Damn straight.  And it has become so recognized as part of the Superman mythos that it was even used in the finale of Smallville.

And thus, going into this film – the Man of Steel – so many people had talked about how, to forge its own identity, this movie would have to leave behind the epic greatness that was John Williams’ music.  And yet to do so would be insane because of how iconic it had become.  No version of Superman could ever stand up to what William’s had done musically with the most famous superhero of all time.

Really?  No one?  No version existed that didn’t do a comparable job, worthy of being a successor musically to the masterpiece of Williams’ work?

That’s the theme to the Superman Animated Series by the magnificent Shirley Walker.  And it is excellent.  It is so much of what Williams’ original theme is, but with a unique feel all its own.  It’s less epic but more adventurous.  It’s the perfect theme for an animated series, perhaps even better for that particular brand of the tale than the Williams’ theme would have been.

So please don’t tell me ‘nobody could follow John Williams’.  Because somebody already has, and excelled at it.

The Best 1980s Music

We remember 80s cartoons like Transformers and GI Joe because they were excellent.

There is more to this love of these shows, however, than mere nostalgia and the love of something that was loved when we were kids in the happier days of yore.  Going back to look at 1980s cartoons with a wider view of more than just the handful of classics that are widely remembered will turn up shows that really were not very good.  Case in point: Pole Position

Some shows, however, upon closer inspection, are even better today than we remember.  Case in point: Voltron, Defender of the Universe

While not quite one of the giants of the era, it was and is spoken of in the same breath as Thundercats and Rainbow Brite, a second-tier icon that was the Grimm to Transformers’ Supernatural.  A a reworked Japanese sci-fi series about a team of robot lions that formed into a giant warrior, Voltron had all the strengths one would expect (and likely recall) from the 1980s era cartoons, as well as many of its weaknesses.  But what it did have that many of its peers did not was an extremely unique and distinctive score.  Listen to three distinctive tracks from the Voltron Score by John Petersen

The Witch

Castle of Lions

Rushing

These are not casual, throw-away tracks.  These are musically distinctive, incorporating sounds and instrumentation that were (and still are) unlike other scores found on television.  The instrumentation of the Voltron score, as well as the compositions themselves, was vividly new and unlike anything else, helping to create a very tangible uniqueness to the show.  But these tracks were the backdrop against which the show occurred.  The true masterpiece of the show’s music lies in its epic theme (ironically best demonstrated by the show’s closing music).

The other music of the score is interesting and unique and unlike anything else.  This track, however, is epic.  It defines epic.  It captures the essence of the over-the-top heroism this show is about.  This track can, and should be, mentioned musically in the same vein as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, two classics by music master John Williams who (when Voltron was being produced) was producing his most memorable work.

Voltron is a show with plenty of flaws, but flaws that are often balanced out or superceded by its strengths.  But an often unnoticed strength is the incredibly vivid and distinctive music that accompanied each episode.  A listener cannot mistake a track from Voltron for any other show of the era, or any other show period.

1980s cartoons had some truly innovative elements at play, and had inspiration to work from.  The success of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica (just to name a few possible influences) had established an artistic credibility for this genre of entertainment.  The result was a professional field that was willing to experiment and try new things in this genre.  Some shows like Transformers and Robotech would produce some truly excellent and unique scores.  But none would compare to Voltron as far as being truly unique and immediately recognizeable, which would only aid in the survivability of the series in the minds of its fans.