Let it brood
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
“Hi. I’m Metallica, and I’m a dysfunctional heavy-metal band.” No one in this best-selling headbanger act (which has sold some 90 million albums since the early 1980s) ever says these exact words on camera in the sometimes fascinating, entertaining documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, but the line would fit perfectly. The rock parody This Is Spinal Tap forever turned such a statement into an oxymoron. Now, Some Kind of Monster grabs the rock-’n’-roll-lifestyle bull by the horns and wrestles it to the recording-studio floor during a two-year therapist/couch approach to rock-group democracy.
Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky featured some of Metallica’s music in their chilling Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. In 2001, they were hired to shoot a promotional film as Metallica made its first studio recording of original material in five years. The project was intriguing for three primary reasons: The band was recovering from the resignation of bassist Jason Newsted; it was entering the studio with no pre-written music, lyrics or even song titles; and it was shelling out $40,000 a month for group therapy under performance-enhancement coach Phil Towle.
The shoot immediately turned from infomercial into a surprise heavy-metal version of Let It Be. That 1970 Beatles documentary simply was meant to chronicle the recording of an album, but it ended up as a sad, introspective story of a band whose musical juice still flowed but whose union teetered on the edge of demise. A cooperative creative process also proved to be painful for Metallica. Its two leaders, brooding guitarist-vocalist James Hetfield and Danish drummer Lars Ulrich, often clashed, and Hetfield walked out of the studio behind a slammed door and into treatment for alcoholism.
Completion of the film was in jeopardy until Hetfield returned nearly a year later. The members of Metallica then spent just as much time talking to, squabbling with and listening to each other as they did developing new songs. The group bought the film rights from Elektra Records, its former label, and began sorting and sifting through a midlife crisis that, in finality, produced St. Anger, Metallica’s fourth No. 1 album.
Some Kind of Monster is not restricted to the Spartan-like studio built for the band in the Presidio barracks (the band requested a blue-collar work environment rather than comfort). The film also follows Ulrich and guitarist Kirk Hammett to Bimbo’s to see their former bassist perform in the group Echobrain. We meet Ulrich’s father, who looks kind of like Rip Van Winkle and who is not afraid of telling his son what he really thinks about fresh cuts from the sessions. And we follow Hetfield to his daughter’s ballet class and Hammett to his ranch.
The film vividly gives us an idea of the personalities and group dynamics behind the instruments here. Goateed and tattooed Hetfield is shedding his tough-guy, rock-animal persona to become the best husband and father he can while still carving out a living in the world of rock. His past as an abandoned child is discussed but not exploited, and his thrashing vocals contrast vividly with his firm use of therapy-speak. Ulrich deals with becoming the most hated man in rock for pursuing his suit against Napster and is the only guy who challenges and rattles Hetfield, and we watch his candid reactions as the chic auction house Christie’s sells a huge chunk of his art collection. We also visit Hammett—the egoless spiritual anchor of the group, who endured years of dictatorial rule and who welcomes the lifting of old boundaries— on his rural ranch. Even Towle shows some surprising colors when told his services are no longer needed.
The film patches archival and recent live performances into the mix with excellent effect. It captures the fierceness and energy of Metallica’s live performances, its swagger as a heavy-metal icon and its difficult task of selecting a new permanent bass player. My only lament here is that the film, which runs about two hours and 20 minutes, feels a little too long.
Some Kind of Monster is about head games, emotional mosh pits, self-destruction, rebirth, the abuse of power and the feeling of being in professional and personal limbo. It is about three men who try to determine whether their union is friend or beast and whether they can write and sing angry lyrics in a healthy way and make aggressive music without negative energy. There is no telling what would have happened to Metallica if the cameras had not been rolling during its St. Anger period. But we get a pretty good idea of what these rock stars look like under a microscope, stripped down to basic human elements.