Turn the Page

Bob Gendron

5 Min Read

Hurry up and wait. That mantra has long been internalized by musicians who spend much of their lives on the road. Contrary to the glamor portrayed in fictionalized films and sensationalized articles, bands usually devote a majority of their time to shuffling from one town to another and idling about in exchange for spending a relatively brief time onstage. They often repeat the process the next day. And the day after that. 

Capturing the period between the August 1991 release of its mammoth “Metallica” album and the conclusion of its coheadlining stadium tour with Guns N’ Roses in early fall ‘92, Part 2 of  “A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica” primarily functions as a behind-the-scenes view of Metallica’s off-stage existence. Intermittent interviews conducted after that stretch supply additional context.

Though not as penetrating as the 2004 documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” the two-hour-plus film – originally released in November 1992 – remains revealing. What it lacks in deep artistic insight it makes up for with candid, unvarnished perspectives. “A Year and a Half...” also extends beyond Metallica by depicting the universal grind, monotony and frustrations shared among touring bands. With apologies to fans of rock ‘n’ roll fantasies, window-smashing parties and revisionist histories, “The Dirt” this is not. 

‘The road is home for us pretty much.’

A majority of the film is devoted to the slog – moments involving a whole lotta nothing. We see band members roused in hotel rooms for scheduled departures; talking backstage about how to improve its concerts; in transit in planes and vans; reading books and magazines; eating; hunting; training to scuba dive; shooting hoops; shopping; soundchecking; signing autographs; attending meet-and-greets; practicing; talking to press; and generally, goofing around and employing humor to kill empty hours. When it comes to the latter, the members of Metallica are seasoned experts. As vocalist-guitarist James Hetfield states: “The road is home for us pretty much.”

Sequences built on performances carry the most weight. Footage from Metallica’s appearances at the 1991 Monsters of Rock Festival at Donington, 1991 Monsters of Rock tour in Moscow, 1991 Day on the Green event in Oakland and various awards shows underline the band’s spark amid a period when it transformed from thrash-metal pioneers to global giants. At one point, drummer Lars Ulrich observes that women comprise half the band’s then-current audiences – a sign times changed from when it predominantly attracted testosterone-fueled males. Similarly, Hetfield notes the difference between hardcore followers and newer fans drawn to the group because they heard “Enter Sandman” on the radio. Metallica didn’t need to make such distinctions before. Part 2 of “A Year and a Half...” preserves how mainstream exposure and commercial success impacted the band – and cleared the way for the fortunes that awaited it in the future.

For Ulrich and company, the days ahead would involve an elevated degree of luxury. In one scene, Ulrich and guitarist Kirk Hammett stand on a tarmac next to a G1 prop plane prepared to shuttle the group to its next destination. They’re waiting to see if Dire Straits’ inbound jet will arrive. Ulrich is not interested Dire Straits; he wants to ogle the quintet’s plane, which he surmises is a G4. Told the Grateful Dead recently enjoyed the comforts of the MGM Grand 727 – the same used by Guns N’ Roses – he becomes envious. On the precipice of selling more than 25 million copies of “Metallica” worldwide, Ulrich and company would soon envy nobody – least a British band he and Hammett “don’’t give a fuck about.”

By the time the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert rolls around in April 1992 at London’s Wembley Stadium, Metallica rules record charts and box offices. The broadcasted benefit show – which attracted talent that included Elton John, George Michael, Robert Plant, David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, Liza Minnelli and more – features a short Metallica performance as well as a collaboration involving Hetfield, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi and the remaining members of Queen. The film zeroes in on the event, showing a portion of Metallica’s brief set as well as backstage clips of the band joking with Spinal Tap and commenting on the spectacle. 

Hetfield looks like a kid happy to even be in a band, not an innovator who earned the right to collaborate with some of his heroes.

Equally compelling is the chronicle of Hetfield’s experiences with Iommi and Queen. Performing just as a singer, the normally imposing musician nearly surrenders to nerves. During both the rehearsal and concert versions of “Stone Cold Crazy,” Hetfield looks like a kid happy to even be in a band, not an innovator who earned the right to collaborate with some of his heroes. The big-league moments – performing with rock royalty in front of a televised audience of hundreds of millions – dramatically contrast with a prior scene where Hetfield takes the stage to jam at a small blues bar and gets introduced as “James Hatfield.”

Hetfield also plays a prominent role in sequences surrounding the Metallica-Guns N’ Roses outing. He famously slams singer Axl Rose and describes the Los Angeles band’s stage as involving a “20-foot ego ramp.” Ulrich and Hammett prove more diplomatic, with the guitarist crediting the tour for forcing Metallica to up its game. Footage from the jaunt’s most chaotic episode – and a crucial piece of the Metallica story – also receives ample facetime: The onstage pyro accident in Montreal that burned Hetfield’s body, caused Metallica to prematurely end its set and, ultimately, conspired with other factors in spurring a riot. 

Still, the band keeps on keepin’ on, and would tour in support of “Metallica” for nearly a year beyond this film’s timeline. An emotional version of “Nothing Else Matters” from Aug. 25, 1992 – the date a still-recovering Hetfield returned to the stage and John Marshall began his stint as a substitute rhythm guitarist – serves as a triumphant chapter ending while hinting at themes that would define the band for the next 30 years: survival and resilience.

However subtle, Part 2 of “A Year and a Half...” proves prophetic in one other significant way and, simultaneously, underscores how young the members of Metallica – then in their late 20s – were at the time of its recording. “Your body tells you what’s going on, on the road, and I listen,” says Hetfield toward the close. Famous last words.

It would take Hetfield another decade to truly listen. That ensuing experience – involving aborted recording sessions, months of rehab and rebooted recording sessions aided by a high-price performance coach – turned into another year and a half in the life of Metallica, one chronicled in painstaking detail on “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.”

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.

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