Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (review)

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If This Is Spinal Tap had been a drama, it would have been Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

Now, I don’t mean to demean Metallica or disparage the film by likening them or it to a mockumentary in which the “mock” equates to “ridiculing” as much as to “fake.” Not at all. It’s just that Tap so overshadows the genre of the rock movie that it’s almost impossible not to see the spectre of Tap in a film about a heavy-metal band looking to reinvent itself and nearly disintegrating in the process. Especially not when this is the first movie about music I’ve seen since Tap that is as profoundly moving, if in the opposite direction: If Tap attained a kind of comic genius in its skewering of heavy metal, Monster lends it a dramatic new gravitas. I’m not a Metallica fan and I’m not sure I even particularly like their music, but this extraordinarily powerful and intimate film had moved me to tears by the time it was over. Monster could redefine what the genre can and should achieve; it may well be the new yardstick against which the next 20 years of rock movies will be measured.
It started out with far more modest goals. The band hired filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to document the making of the album that would become 2003’s St. Anger, thinking they might use the footage to sell CDs through a TV infomercial. (Berlinger and Sinofsky’s documentaries Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2 had previously covered the trials of three Arkansas teenagers accused of ritual, “satanic” murder, among the evidence for which was the boys’ affinity for Metallica’s music; the band had given the filmmakers unprecedented permission to use their music in the films.) The band was taking a new approach to recording; instead of the rigid creative control singer/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich had held over their bandmates, writing songs themselves and dictating what the others should play, the band would just jam and see what developed. The goal, says longtime Metallica producer Bob Rock, was to make a garage-band album, except that the garage band just happened to have been together for two decades and was the biggest concert draw in the world.

The change had come about as a result of creative clashes with former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, who’d just angrily quit the band after 15 years. Metallica’s management, in an attempt to get the remaining band members — Hetfield, Ulrich, and guitarist Kirk Hammett, plus Rock, whom they asked to fill in as bass player for the recording sessions — to play nicely with each other and get back to work, hired “performance enhancement coach” Phil Towle to lead Metallica group therapy.

Enter Berlinger and Sinofsky. Their cameras captured not only the tortured creation of St. Anger but also the near death and rebirth of Metallica, and they’ve assembled thousands of hours of footage into an almost shockingly vulnerable and achingly raw exposé of the soft underbelly of hardest of hard-rock bands. Twenty years of resentment, things that the band members had kept tamped down, come boiling up under Towle’s ministrations, to the point where Hetfield storms out of a therapy session and doesn’t return for nearly a year, during which time there’s tremendous doubt whether the band will survive. Berlinger and Sinofsky know that dedicated fans will not find anything suspenseful in this — it’s no secret that the band finished St. Anger and toured the world in 2003 — so they open the film at the end of the story, with Hetfield and Ulrich and the others answering pointed questions from rock journalists about the new album.

The suspense — and there is a great deal of it — comes instead in wondering how these angry, bitter men will overcome their issues with one another and get to that point we see in the beginning of the film, relaxed and happy and confident. You think that Monster would be ickily touchy-feely, but it isn’t. Perhaps we’re so used to the language of therapy, all of us so self-aware psychologically these days that there’s nothing in the least surprising about hearing the members of “Alcoholica” — as they were dubbed in their party-hard days — pouring out their most intimate feelings about themselves and their bandmates, acknowledging aloud their problems with “control” or their dependence on a “father figure” like Towle. And it is intensely compelling to see a man like Hetfield — macho and emotionally distant, at least when we first meet him here, he is the “monster” of the title as much as the band or the “bigness,” as Hetfield calls it, of fame — transformed from being antagonistic at the prospect of therapy to calling Towle an “angel” who saved his life, from only begrudgingly giving up his creative control over Metallica to calling the jointly produced St. Anger “angry in a healthy way.”

Fans need no impetus to see Some Kind of Monster. But nonfans shouldn’t miss it, either. In fact, walking into Monster without the baggage of fandom may be the best way to see this incredible film not just as one band’s story but as an insightful exploration of the demons and insecurities that drive us all.

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