In the early going, a teenager, removed from the crowded entrance line by only a few feet, rips so hard on his air guitar that he throws himself backward into a bush. Undeterred, he climbs out to continue thrashing. This is the band’s fandom at its devotional best, a goofy abandon in which anger transmutes to cathartic groove. The fandom’s nadir can probably be inferred from the identification of the stereotypical fan as a white, blue collar man. One such subject announces his displeasure that his middle name, Emmit, deprives him of the initials KKK. He hates “communist conservatives” who want to take away his newly purchased Tec-9. Other interviewees include a methed out teenager who hasn’t slept in five days, a crewmember terrified of missing Lars Ulrich’s lighting cues, and a man straight out of the pit nursing a head wound. As Braverman puts it: “Metallica fans: in a drunken rage today, senatorial hopefuls tomorrow.”
Nearly everyone agrees on one thing: the new shit isn’t as good as the old. When the band traded the genre-defining trash of their first four records for the Heavy Rock of 1991’s self-titled “Black” album, the tailgate consensus held that the band sold out their fans and their legacy. But as with the malcontents decrying the infidelity of Disney’s Star Wars films who are nevertheless unable to abstain from each new release, these fans can’t quit Metallica.
In a repeated bit that gains unintended profundity, Braverman asks for fans to speculate on the band’s “philosophy.” It’s a gag, of course, meant to befuddle the drunks, but that doesn’t mean it’s an unproductive line of thought. Without putting too fine a point on it, the question ultimately translates to “what are we all doing here, preparing to sweat and convulse to punishingly loud noise?” Most answers are inarticulate, variations on a theme offered up by the wasted young man who claims Metallica “says everything I feel” before putting a cigarette out on his tongue. It would take an anthropologist to say for sure, but it seems pretty clear that what they’re all doing there is physically coalescing as a class in a way that feels unthreatening. It’s apparent in the mating/war dance the band itself does on stage, alternately thrusting their crotches and heads at one another during particularly juicy noodling. Like sports, metal culture offers millions of young men an arena to enjoy each other’s bodies without shame. They weave their arms around shoulders, forming a chain of shirtless dude bod. It’s a big tent of white disaffection that includes those without the emotional vocabulary or political awareness to question their station as well as the white supremacists disgusted that Showtime at the Apollo features too many black people. Some diversity rears its head as a man in a wheelchair proudly shows off a stomach tattoo reading “Crippled Supremacy.”
Several interviewees get closer to the mark when they sum up the band’s philosophy in one word: “money.” The band’s burgeoning gifts for merchandising are a sticking point for many interviewees, as it is for the filmmakers, who had been friendly with the group since the earlier, hungrier days. (Such is their bonhomie that Braverman can get away with mocking Hetfield’s mullet to his face.) The plethora of Metallica tchotchkes coincided with the softening of their sound. Braverman interrogates one collector kind enough to share his memorabilia with the camera by demanding to know whether a Metallica-branded pillow’s softness betrays the “idea of the band.” (Twenty years later, pillows have become some of the milder merchandising betrayals, which also include see-through backpacks, jigsaw puzzles, passport covers, infant socks, and of course, Funko Pops.) In his disgust, Braverman stumbles on another interesting question when he asks what the collector plans to do with his treasures, which he would never sell. “Probably be buried with them,” he says. “Unless I have some cool kids or something who deserve it.” As if to twist the knife, Madonna shows up in the last ten minutes to coax the band to a party at her house. Braverman asks her to name a Metallica song, with predictable results.
Metallica long ago reached the rare air of popular culture in which navel-gazing becomes the only path to authenticity. After decades of playing to tens of thousands nightly and collecting Basquiats, each of their projects has become a testament to its own making. Like a producer wanting every dollar onscreen, they don’t like to spend a dime without mentioning it in an interview or documenting the expense on tape. Called upon to describe any endeavor, the band and crew rely on variations of More/Most/Biggest/Ever/History. Like a Disney film, each effort is a hub with a hundred spokes of merchandising radiating outward. Metallimania, which no one outside of the band’s circle of roadies and assistants was ever meant to see, enlists fans to wrestle with ambivalent feelings directed toward their idols. They’ve unveiled many lackluster albums and videos and toys since then that the 90s notion of “selling out” doesn’t compute anymore. It goes without saying that now every star must become a fount of merch and multi-tiered experiences. But Metallimania escaped the machine twenty years ago, and now serves as a reminder that such things used to seem worth our anger.