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A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica (1991)

A documentary on the bestselling heavy metal band of all time.

By Tom BakerPublished about a year ago Updated 11 months ago 5 min read
Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich (Image found at Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.)

I once, around the Good Year 1989, played the opening riffs off of "Blackened" by Metallica, from an audio cassette (i.e. music recorded on magnetic tape unspooled between two plastic spinners, in a machine specifically designed to do so, called a "tape deck") of their fourth album ....And Justice for All. An aunt of mine, who was into the average arena-rock bands of the era, the Poisons, and Motley Crues, recoiled in horror. "That band SUCKS!" she exclaimed. "They'll never amount to anything!" That was her prediction. Of course, they went on to mega-stardom, success beyond their wildest dreams, becoming one of the top bestselling hard rock/heavy metal bands in recording industry history.

You're either a Metallica fan or you're not. Not much room for in-between there, I've noticed. I had a dream wherein I was sitting with Metallica and Cyndi Lauper, watching what I took to be Slayer videos. Neither Cyndi nor Slayer appear in the documentary I'm about to review, but, Guns N' Roses does, as well as Queen, Tonny Iommi from Black Sabbath, and even fucking Spinal Tap. Along the way, we have special appearances from rock journalist Lonn Friend, and Rikki Rachtman, a touching moment where a kid with terminal cancer gets to live out his dream by jamming with Metallica.

In between, we essentially have Metallica being Metallica: rocking heavy metal dudes mired in dude think, in the studio with the famous Bob Rock (who started his career by producing hardcore punk bands like the Subhumans and D.O.A.) and endless variations and repetitions of the songs that would go on to become the mega-selling Black Album, which would launch their careers and fame into the stratosphere. There's a lot of sitting around the studio, shooting the shit. It's like an extended homemade video, but it anticipates the birth of reality television shows by decades. it's cinema-verite for the heavy rock set.

Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Jason Newsted, and Kirk Hammett come off as goofy, down-to-Earth, and likable. No one will remember the snippets of an interview with them sitting in front of the microphone as much as their behavior in real-life situations. They'll remember that Kirk Hammet writes riffs at three A.M. jam sessions, but not what his theory of Metallica's music is, and what its mega-popularity might say about themselves, their fan base, etc. They'll remember that James considers Lars a prima donna that takes too long to get "ready" for a recording session because he has to eat and take a nap and then it's hours later when he finally "gets a stick in his hand." They'll remember Jason Newsted likes to jam to blues music with his friends, and likes to play basketball.

We never dig deep enough here, but we do get to see a side of rock stardom that seems positively bourgeois. At least, in the case of Metallica, who don't seem as if they live on the kind of desperate, hard-as-nails "edge" presented by the image of their music. Instead, they seem like, well, dedicated and relaxed musicians I suppose, but also business conscientious of their image, and what it means to their rabid fan base.

Excess, although it seems to unfold below the surface (a roadie shows blacked-out Polaaroids of groupies, admitting, "Everyone in the crew shot a wad on this one"), seems curiously lacking. There's not enough of Metallica's music (as in a variety of songs) in the film, and what's there is repeated in various live and "as being recorded" incarnations (although there is a rather shortened video of a concert). The seemingly endless tour is not a hotel-smashing descent into rock n' roll pig wallowing but does end with them playing a tribute to Freddie Mercury, who had died that year. They play alongside members of Queen, GNR, and Black Sabbath--an all-star tribute.

We get clips of their fans, but none of them seem to have much in the way of any depth when it comes to analyzing WHY it is they are so rabid for this one particular heavy metal supergroup. One thing the movie does do very well, however, is take you back to an era. Wall-mounted, old-fashioned tube TVs show news clips of the Gulf War and King George the First, Saddam Hussein, and the first Gulf War. Occasionally, we get kitsch outtakes from old Fifties television and movie shows spliced in, to underscore, one supposes the incredible social shift between then and an era when an entity like Metallica could even exist.

I would like a documentary that dug deeper, into the psychology of the fans' obsession, with what Metallica think their music even really means, in the grand scheme of things. But this is all pretty surface-level stuff. Be that as it may, it is compulsively watchable, if you grew up in this era, listening to Metallica, and you yearn for a bit of nostalgia to take you back to a younger, wilder you, one with his or her life in front of them, instead of thirty-odd years behind. I am one such a youth, now turned middle-aged, and this one, man, takes me back to a whole different time period. Before grunge and alternative and hip hop changed the musical landscape, altering the often fickle taste of the youthful musical fanbase. Metallica, not most wisely or subtly, decided to try and keep up with it and got mixed results. Of course, this finally culminated in their heavy-handed handling of the Napster debacle, which forever tarnished their otherwise flawless street cred with so many, and undoubtedly lost them a portion of their fanbase.

All that is ancient history though, and for old kids and the young at heart, who wish they could thrash around and slam dance the same way they did when they were high school freshmen, A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica is a nostalgia trip for a time, a place, and a particular sound when metal ruled the charts and hearts of so many millions.

And, well, to borrow one of their song titles, "nothing else matters."

Part 1

Part 2

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About the Creator

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis, Indiana Ghost Folklore, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, and Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest.:

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