Metallica, weíre told at the beginning of the new documentary from Paradise Lost directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, are the biggest heavy-metal band of all time. In his metalography Sound of the Beast (Harper Collins), critic Ian Christie notes that in their first 15 years, Metallica moved more records than the Rolling Stones have sold in their entire career, much of that total accrued without radio or MTV airplay. When the film joins Metallica, in the first month of 2001, the group have been dormant for several years. Long-time bass player Jason Newsted, who was young enough to have been a fan of the band before he replaced the late, great Cliff Burton, has departed in acrimony. The remaining members, no longer on speaking terms, have been disparaging one another in the media. Like the Stones, Metallica are a multi-million-dollar corporation as much as they are an iconic rock band; the profits they bring their record company, Elektra (which was dismantled not long after the film wrapped), are so lucrative that the band receive about four times as much per album as most of their peers get. Such a moneymaker cannot be allowed to crumble, so the bandís management company sends in a corporate fixer ó Dr. Phil Towle, a therapist and "performance-enhancement coach" whose specialty is motivating sports teams ó to put Metallica back together again, at least long enough to record a new album. Thatís the filmís premise: the worldís most famous headbangers get subjected to a head shrinking.
Some Kind of Monster is a new breed of rockumentary, though it has many precedents. Like the Beatlesí Let It Be, itís an exhaustive (three years condensed into 135 minutes) portrait of an outfit making an album while discovering it doesnít like itself very much. As a fly-on-the-wall document of insecure middle-aged rock stars making asses of themselves, it has moments of This Is Spinal Tap comedy. In revealing the bourgeois mundanity behind a heavy-metal monster, it suggests The Osbournes. As the bandís ferocious leader, James Hetfield, uneasily warms to the language of therapy, you might recall The Sopranos. And the filmís short-circuited redemptive ending scans like an instant Behind the Music.
But what the movie really has going for it are three great characters, each maintaining his own fiefdom in the groupís creative kingdom. Singer/guitarist Hetfield, the solemn, alcoholic cowboy, is the son of working-class Jehovahís Witnesses; he warms up before each show by singing along to the bandís entrance music, the Ennio Morricone theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Drummer Lars Ulrich, the privileged son of famous Danish tennis pro Torben Ulrich, is a smug dilettante who styles himself a European intellectual. (As a teen, he imported the obscure British metal albums on which Metallica modeled their early successes; these days, he collects pricy modern art.) And the air-headed, helium-voiced lead-guitarist Kirk Hammett is a surfing Buddhist and budding equestrian who follows orders while attempting, like the put-upon child in a bad marriage, to keep the peace. I saw the film in a roomful of Metallica fans, and Hammett got the biggest laughs: every time he opens his mouth, his band matesí eyes roll back in their heads.
The recording sessions begin amiably enough: Hetfield growls into the microphone with his toddler son, Castor, perched on his lap, and during a break, Ulrichís young son does a flailing impersonation of his dadís technique. But the bandís well has run dry: for the first time in their career, they enter the studio without any songs written, planning to perform spontaneously and edit the results on computer. As part of Dr. Philís regimen of group therapy and daily affirmation ("We become healers of ourselves," reads one mission statement), each member is asked to share his area of expertise. When Hetfield admits his bandmates into the lyric-writing process, the group sessions yield clunkers like Hammettís "My lifestyle determines my deathstyle." Hammett, a speedy shredder adrift in a musical era thatís shunned showy technical proficiency, is told his comrades want to eliminate all guitar solos from the album; itís such a cruel suggestion that at first you think it must be some surprise reality-show plot twist, à la Joe Millionaire. They are, however, dead serious.
Despite Dr. Philís best efforts ó or more likely because of them ó the band quickly come unglued. Hetfield takes a two-week Russian vacation to hunt bears and guzzle vodka, missing Castorís first birthday. Thereís no chemistry among the players, and they revert to untidy, supine bundles of need and anxiety. Their sparring escalates from pithy passive-aggressiveness to outright hostility to childish tantrums. Hetfield: "Youíve been pickiní at me all night!" Ulrich: "Youíre being a total dick!" With that, Hetfield storms out, checks himself into rehab, and disappears for the better part of a year.
ONE OF THE MORE AMUSING MOMENTS in Some Kind of Monster involves a computer animation that was posted on-line by a disgruntled admirer after Ulrich ratted on thousands of fans who were downloading Metallica songs on Napster. In the clip, Ulrich is depicted as a greedy, weasel-faced snitch; meanwhile, Hetfield, a stocky Frankensteinís monster, grunts compliantly. But as in Paradise Lost, the story of three teenage misfits convicted of a hideous child-murder spree in rural Arkansas, Sinofsky and Berlinger resist turning their subjects into cartoons, even when the subjects all but beg for it. (At one point, Elektra wanted to chop the footage up into an Osbournes-style reality series, but Metallica responded by buying out the labelís stake and giving the filmmakers total control.) With Hetfield gone indefinitely, Sinofsky and Berlinger turn to fleshing out their characters. Ulrichís grizzled papa makes a sublime entrance, looking like a cross between Obi Wan Kenobi and the ghost of Hamletís father. After Lars admits heís still in need of his fatherís approval, they repair to the studio, where Torben listens to the albumís prospective lead single and renders an august judgment. "If I was an adviser," he croaks, in a line destined to be echoed in control rooms around the world, "I would say, ĎDelete it.í "
Behind the voyeuristic spectacle of seeing a majestic metal band unmasked as a group of pampered, backstabbing millionaires who need their hands held, Some Kind of Monster asks a few serious questions, chief among them, "Is all this worth it?" Hetfield, for one, has destroyed himself by attempting to personify the heroic ideals and hard living embodied in the bandís lyrics and image. For him, the monster of the title is indeed the band: "To me, itís been a beast, and itís sucked a lot of me into it." "And you were at one time the beast master," Towle reminds him. In his more lucid moments, Hetfield admits that firing Newsted for recording a side project may have been a bit extreme: "I didnít want him to feel that Metallica wasnít enough. The way I learned how to love things was to choke them to death." While Hetfieldís away, Ulrich arranges a meeting with estranged lead-guitarist Dave Mustaine, who in 1983 was sacked for excessive drinking. (Despite recurrent battles with drugs and alcohol, Mustaine went on to found Megadeth, a platinum-selling band who are almost as respected as Metallica.) Instead of burying the hatchet, though, Mustaine plants it in Ulrichís chest, unleashing a self-pitying tirade that begins, "People hate me because of you!", and goes downhill from there.
Eventually, the band rally together to repel their common enemies ó a radio-station syndicate wants them to lend their voice to a promotional cash give-away, and the increasingly invasive Dr. Phil has progressed from flyering the studio with posters reading "Get in the Zone!" to suggesting lyric changes. But the groupís underlying tensions arenít so much resolved as swept under the rug. Hetfieldís first order of business after getting sober is to suggest that making a film about a band mired in turmoil might not have been such a bright idea. The band and the filmmakers argue over whether to continue, and that becomes the crux of the film. Is the beastly entity larger than any one of them (Ulrich)? Or is it subservient to the needs of the individual parts (Hetfield)? They agree to disagree.
Like my favorite Metallica album, 1988ís epic . . . And Justice for All, Some Kind of Monster feels about a half-hour too long, and yet it left me wanting more. (A greatly expanded DVD edition is already in the works.) A dozen years ago, in a scene from the direct-to-video A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica (which chronicled the making of the groupís breakthrough, the so-called "Black Album"), Hetfield was seen glaring at the television as the first President Bush announced the first Gulf War. It was a poignant image; around the same time, John Kerry took the floor of the Senate to read aloud from Dalton Trumboís Johnny Got His Gun, the anti-war novel that Metallica had adapted a few years earlier for their first mainstream hit, "One." In Some Kind of Monster, the band live in a claustrophobic cocoon. Itís a shock to learn that the Mustaine conversation took place on September 13, 2001; in the absence of any mention of September 11, youíre left to conclude that they simply didnít notice. In a matter of a decade, one of the worldís most presciently political bands has become one of its most insular. And as you leave Some Kind of Monster, you may find yourself pondering a question posed by Ulrich in a scene where heís trying to turn the Napster debacle into the germ of a lyric: " ĎWhat difference did we make?í If that question could sort of get thrown out there, but not answered, that would be awesome."
Issue Date: July 30 - August 5, 2004
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