Filmed in Fort Worth, Texas, in May 1997 on Metallica’s memorable tour in support of “Load,” “Cunning Stunts” captures more than two hours of concert footage, a deep setlist and some onstage “stunts.”
The identity crisis Metallica began to experience in the mid-’90s coincided with a host of deeper-seated issues. Only a few years removed from releasing a blockbuster album, conquering the planet with a 24-month tour and cementing its status as one of the world’s biggest bands, the quartet found itself in an alien landscape hostile to established rock stars and lukewarm about heavy music. Times and tastes were changing as rapidly as Lars Urich’s galloping beat in “Motorbreath.”
Guitar-based music continued to cede prominence to electronica, hip-hop and boy-band pop. The dominant format of the early ‘90s, so-called “alternative rock,” lay in shambles. Kurt Cobain’s suicide ended Nirvana. Pearl Jam’s stand against Ticketmaster nearly caused the band’s demise. Layne Staley’s addictions rendered Alice in Chains moot. The Smashing Pumpkins battled personal demons and dealt with an overdose casualty. Soundgarden neutered its sound and disbanded. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ministry and Green Day plunged into creative tailspins. Nine Inch Nails faded from view. Major record labels ceased signing artists with distorted guitars, angst-ridden themes and Doc Martens. The final wave they wrangled — Collective Soul, Bush, Better Than Ezra, Sponge, Silverchair — confirmed how vapid and imitative “alt” had become.
Metallica’s famous hard-rock and metal peers fared no better. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Anthrax had undergone significant personnel shifts that sent the groups reeling. Megadeth chased commercial fame and experimented with pop. The drama-plagued Guns N’ Roses existed in name only. AC/DC opted for an extended break. Ozzy Osbourne remade himself into a brand and prepped for his role as America’s crazy, harmless uncle. Even the mighty Slayer tweaked its approach. Lesser artists arising from the hybrid rap-rock and nu-metal sectors filled the vacancies, and headline-savvy chameleons like Marilyn Manson capitalized on true metal’s retreat back into the underground.
Such circumstances presented Metallica with unique challenges and opportunities. The band members responded by altering their looks — and sound. Their newly sheared locks mirrored streamlined music that embraced linear structures, balanced tempos and boogie.
Metallica’s fashion makeover alienated some of its fans, though the musical adjustments didn’t undercut sales. Released in June 1996, Metallica’s “Load” LP shot to No. 1 on the charts and sold more than 3 million copies within seven months en route to five-times-platinum status.
Was the band metal? Alt-rock? Sellouts? Visionaries?
The band completed its overhaul with another nonconformist move: headlining the 1996 Lollapalooza tour. The newsworthy decision spoke volumes about the dying state of “alt-rock” and the no-man’s land that Metallica inhabited. Was the band metal? Alt-rock? Sellouts? Visionaries?
“Cunning Stunts,” captured live in Fort Worth, Texas, provides valuable insight into a complicated situation. Recorded May 9-10, 1997, at the tail end of Metallica’s Poor Touring Me trek, it documents a vibrant band connected to its core principles, aware of key priorities and unconcerned with trends.
“We’ve come here to kick your ass!” singer-guitarist James Hetfield growls near the onset of the film. Though countless groups remain guilty of revving up audiences with cliched remarks, Hetfield and his mates walk the talk. The band’s unorthodox stage places it in the center of the arena and allows members to proceed down ramps that put them within inches of ardent fans. The configuration also permits Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Jason Newsted a chance to play to every corner of the room while granting the crowd a level of intimacy impossible with far-end stage setups.
The bonding occurs before a note sounds. Metallica emerges at floor level amid bright venue lights, slapping the hands of fans and giving one another fist bumps. Revealingly, the same group that invested immense thought in its post-“Metallica” transformation starts the show with a ripping version of the most vulgar, flagrant song it ever recorded: “So What?” The Anti-Nowhere League punk screed is followed by a mammoth “Creeping Death” during which Ulrich’s drum barrage mimics detonating M-80 explosives and a hulking “Sad But True,” which conjures a family of Yetis trampling everything in its path.
For better or worse, a majority of Metallica’s then-recent fare stands apart from the rest of the set. The tracks mainly arrive in a single sequence interrupted by “One.” A slide guitar solo underlines blues currents in the linear “Ain’t My Bitch”; the mellow “Hero of the Day” treads Top 40 territory; “King Nothing” stems attack in favor of mood; aggressive segments of the then-untitled “Fuel” struggle to break free of conventional song structure.
They’re anomalies in a 125-minute film that depicts a group determined to reaffirm its identity — and demonstrate its integrity — as a thrash band tethered to its roots. The performances don’t lie. Witness the blood-and-thunder roar of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”; coiled strike and surgical focus of “Wherever I May Roam”; speed-demon frenzy, studded-leather aggression and technical sharpness of its medley of material from “Kill ‘Em All” and “Ride the Lightning”; and the breakneck energy Newsted brings to every facet, including gruff background vocals that convey a demonic bent.
Metallica closes by taking a trip back to its formative days. The move functions as a clear declaration of place and purpose. The quartet huddles in a specified area largely illuminated by hanging pull-chain lights. A brief jam session transpires. Soon, a shirtless Hetfield, wielding a “Flying V” guitar, commands the microphone. The band tears into a pair of mean songs from its 1983 debut. For roughly eight minutes, Metallica is again a gaggle of scuffling, long-haired, denim-clad, pimply faced teenagers unknowingly changing music in a nondescript California garage. Onward the four horsemen ride.
“Cunning Stunts” Setlist
So What? (Anti-Nowhere League cover)
Sad But True
Ain’t My Bitch
Hero of the Day
Bass-Guitar Jam→Nothing Else Matters
Until It Sleeps
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Wherever I May Roam
Fade to Black
Medley: Ride the Lightning→No Remorse→Hit the Lights→The Four Horsemen→Seek & Destroy→Fight Fire with Fire
Leper Messiah→Last Caress (Misfits cover)
Master of Puppets
Am I Evil? (Diamond Head cover)
Bob Gendron has been obsessing over music, albums and audio ever since he landed a job at an indie record store at age 13. A longtime contributor to the Chicago Tribune and the first Associate Editorial Director at The Coda Collection, he was also the longtime Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role at TONEAudio. Gendron is the author of “Gentlemen” (Bloomsbury) and a coauthor of “Nirvana: The Complete Illustrated History” (Voyageur). His writing has also appeared in DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Revolver and other outlets.