Metallica S&M2 review: A vanity project or the film their career deserves?

Metallica press shot
(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

It’s hard to believe, but it's been 20 years since Metallica first hooked up with the San Francisco Orchestra – an event that was immortalised by the fantastic S&M album – and it’s fair to say that when a second round of the collaboration was announced to celebrate the opening of San Francisco’s new Chase Centre, metal fans all over the world salivated at the thought of seeing what the 2019 lineup could do with full orchestration. 

The two evenings have been captured on film and turned into Metallica’s third attempt at conquering the cinematic universe. Those first two attempts ended up being either jaw-droppingly awkward (the excellent but cringy Some Kind Of Monster) or confusingly pretentious (the mystifyingly bloated Through The Never), it’s about time we got the concert film that Metallica’s career deserves. 

S&M2 is comfortably the most successful version, showing just what a great band Metallica are on film. 

Before we get into the action, there's a short documentary section, detailing the origins of how the first set of shows came about, with some sweet memories of the late, great Michael Kamen – the man who was key to marrying the sound of thrash metal with orchestral flourishes. 

Then, we forward on to the band’s decision to attempt the project once again on its 20th birthday, showing glimpses of the rehearsals, and the various players' genuine excitement and nerves at such a mammoth project. It sets the scene and amps up the levels of anticipation expertly for the next two hours. 

Once we set eyes on a packed house and the orchestra launching into a live version of The Ecstasy Of Gold, it's a spine tingling moment. One could argue it’s almost as impactful as being there yourself.

Metallica open the set, as they did in 1999, with the epic instrumental The Call Of Ktulu. There are slight tweaks and changes made from the original score from two decades back, but they're very subtle. Metallica themselves seem to be concentrating deeply in this opening passage, clearly intent on locking themselves in as tightly with the orchestra as they can, as early as possible. 

As the show progresses, you can see them loosen up, with both Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo busting past the orchestra and into the crowd later in the show. But early on you are left to marvel at just what a stunning composition ...Ktulu is in full, HD, surround sound glory. 

With the musicians surrounding the band in the round, it also feels like S&M2 makes The San Francisco Symphony a far bigger part of the show than they were back in 1999. In those days, they sat behind Metallica and were glimpsed only occasionally. Here, they interact with the band (the opening of One, with the orchestra's drummer riffing with Lars Ulrich, is particularly great to see) and show just as much star quality as Metallica themselves. That goes particularly for conductor Edwin Outwater, who looks like Christian Bale, has an intense stare and can be seen thrashing his whole body around in time to the music like an absolute rock star. 

But it’s principal bassist Scott Pingel who really steals the show, his bowed bass tribute to Cliff Burton on (Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth is mind blowing, jaw dropping and wonderfully evocative of the late, great visionary.

Metallica deserve huge credit for really diving deep into the classical world this time around, and many of the film's highlights are when they really step outside of their comfort zone. Such as joining in on a cover of Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry or seeing James Hetfield stand alone and sing The Unforgiven III with just the orchestra alongside him. 

There are enough nods to the original project – once more the staggering The Outlaw Torn from 1996’s much maligned Load album is given a run out, and once again, it manages to be pretty much the highlight of the entire set. This might just be the most underrated song in history, and there should now surely be a law passed that makes Metallica play it at every show they ever do from now until forever.

And, of course, if you do just want to see Metallica being a stunning heavy metal band, then the glorious romp through the last half hour of the film will give you that too. Orchestra or no, you just can’t mess with Wherever I May Roam, One, Master Of Puppets, Nothing Else Matters and Enter Sandman as closers. 

It’s easy to feel pretty pissed off sometimes when you’re a Metallica fan; they’ve definitely stood on some pretty shaky foundations over the last couple of decades. But when they get one of these ‘vanity projects’ right, you can’t help but forgive them immediately. Even this deep into their career, they're still taking chances, still challenging themselves, still trying to grow, and, in the case of S&M2, getting it absolutely spot on. A must see.

Metallica: S&M2 Blu-ray

Metallica: S&M2 Blu-ray
If you missed S&M2 on the silver screen then don't despair as you can catch up on all the action thanks to this 2CD/Blu-ray package. It's crammed full of classics and is yet another milestone in Metallica's remarkable career.

Metallica: S&M2

Metallica: S&M2
Metallica's two landmark shows with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra from September 2019 are documented on this new live release. The concerts were lined up to mark 20 years since the original S&M album.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.