Mission to Lars: Film Review

Unorthodox music documentary about an autistic man's search for his heavy metal hero.

The British documentary chronicles an autistic man's journey to meet his hero: Metallica's Lars Ulrich.

How does a man with severe learning disabilities get to meet his hero, the drummer with the planet's biggest heavy rock band? In the case of this slight but warm-hearted British documentary, he embarks on a road trip across California and Nevada with his brother and sister, hoping for a backstage chat and impromptu drum lesson from Metallica's Lars Ulrich. Just as long as he can keep his panic attacks and wild mood swings in check.

The filmmakers first pitched Mission to Lars to TV networks, who turned down the subject matter flat. Undaunted, they pressed on alone, creating a quirky labor of love which is currently on limited release in British theaters. Shot on a shoe-string budget, this highly personal project inevitably feels a little thin and televisual in places. But thanks to its media-friendly backstory and the involvement of global rock megastars Metallica, it could enjoy a similar niche release in non-U.K. territories before finding its natural home on DVD and specialist documentary channels.

Mission to Lars is a family affair. The producer-narrator Kate Spicer is a British newspaper journalist, while her filmmaker brother Will acts as her co-director and travelling companion here. Their 40-year-old middle sibling Tom, the man on a mission, suffers from fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that affects about one in every 4,000 men and one in every 6,000 women. Described by his sister as “autism with knobs on," Tom's condition manifests itself in seriously impaired learning and single-minded obsessions, which explains his fixation on Metallica and Ulrich in particular.

The Spicers present their transatlantic quest as a family bonding exercise and a way of raising awareness about their brother's condition. Indeed, profits from the film are going to the British mental health charity Mencap. In truth, this complex and weighty subject soon becomes secondary to the episodic road-trip format, which strains at times to be a real-life version of Rain Man. At one point in the journey, the film-makers interview a leading US expert on fragile X, but this brief scene is frustratingly light on factual meat.

Instead, the Spicers do their best to inject suspense and jeopardy into the story, overplaying every minor setback and petty disagreement in the stage-managed style of a reality TV show. Tom goes missing on the morning of their flight from London to L.A., but he is quickly located. On the verge of seeing Metallica play in Las Vegas, Tom gets cold feet and declines to attend the show. When he finally works up the courage to go backstage at the band's Anaheim concert, he and Kate sit in nail-biting limbo while they await Ulrich's arrival.

Will the diminutive Danish-born rocker even deign to see them? Will this sentimental journey end happily? Well, there is a pretty heavy clue in the title. This artificially amplified anxiety becomes mildly irritating, but without it the film would have little narrative drive at all. And in fairness, when Ulrich does finally appear, his easy warmth and generosity toward Tom gives this slight story the emotional jolt it needs to gearshift from superior home movie to universal celebration of human kindness and musical connection.

The Spicers pulled off something of a coup by persuading Metallica to co-operate with their low-budget DIY movie, which even includes a live performance of one of their biggest hits, Enter Sandman. That said, it is easy to see why the band gave their approval. Their previous venture onto the big screen, in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's 2004 rockumentary Some Kind of Monster, caught them in the depths of bitter in-fighting and painful group therapy. Although officially approved and critically well received, it was hardly a flattering portrait, particularly as it coincided with a low point in Metallica's musical career and public reputation.

Mission to Lars is a much smaller film, with a narrower potential audience. But it is also much sweeter, painting Metallica as compassionate and fan-friendly. As the biggest heavy rock superstars on the planet, with their reputation largely restored in recent years, they scarcely need the publicity. But even a quirky little project like this is clearly a win-win situation for band and filmmakers alike. It will not teach you very much about either autism or Metallica, but you will leave the theater smiling.

Production company: Spicer and Moore
Cast: Kate Spicer, Tom Spicer, Lars Ulrich
Director: James Moore, William Spicer
Producers: James Moore, William Spicer
Executive producer: Kate Spicer
Director of photography: William Spicer, Leigh Alner
Writer: Kate Spicer
Editors: Mags Arnold, Tom Herrington, Ben Luria, James Moore
Music: Mike Lindsay
Sales agent: Spicer and Moore
Rated 12A, 76 minutes