Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 10, 2005

Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky/starring James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo/Paramount Home Video

A documentary about the struggles that popular heavy metal band Metallica went through while recording their album St. Anger.

Documentaries about musicians can be a tricky thing to pull off. People assume that they mostly appeal only to die-hard fans of the artist, and that’s true to a large extent. I know I’d be much less interested in a doc about someone like Mariah Carey or Garth Brooks than I would be in a doc about a band that I really like. Conversely, someone who doesn’t like Metallica’s music at all would probably not be receptive to a 2-hour plus film about the making of one of their albums. That’s just the nature of the beast.

That’s a shame though, because Some Kind of Monster is really pretty fascinating stuff, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan. I’ve been listening to Metallica for close to 20 years now, and in all honesty, St. Anger is easily my least favorite album of theirs. I like a few of the songs individually, but taken as a whole the album is like 70 minutes of construction noise outside your bedroom in the morning. There’s no sense of variation or even structure among the songs – it’s all one relentless jackhammer pounding in your ear, with lyrics that sound like transcripts from a primal scream therapy session. This may in fact be what they were going for, but there’s a difference between uncompromising and unlistenable. It’s like they were trying so hard to make something edgy and hardcore to prove they were still relevant that they wound up with something that nobody really wanted to listen to. (And Lars, dude – enough with the fucking snare drum already!) I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion, as the whole thing pretty much went over like a lead balloon upon its release. Even “hard rock” radio, which is pretty much “all Metallica all the time” now, didn’t really get behind it. Sure, it went platinum and debuted at #1, but it’s kind of like a bad blockbuster movie that sells tickets the first weekend, until word-of-mouth gets around. Metallica could release an album of Barry Manilow covers at this point and it would have the same effect.

I may not like St. Anger much better after watching Some Kind of Monster, but I feel like I understand it more. Although it wasn’t planned this way, in retrospect making this movie was probably the best move they could have made. It’s rare that a major rock band gives their fans this level of behind-the-scenes access, and it’s even rarer to watch a band in the process of making such a misfire. If the CD doesn’t do it for you, well, at least the movie helps make sense of it all.

Since the movie came out last summer, it’s been well documented that Metallica was a band in serious crisis at the time this footage was shot. Having just lost their longtime bass player, Jason Newsted, the band started recording while bringing in a therapist, Dr. Phil Towle, to help them work out their personal issues with each other. Then guitarist Hetfield went to rehab for months, and when he came back could only work 4 hours a day. Tension, anyone? And that’s just the beginning.

Acclaimed documentary filmmakers Berlinger and Sinofsky, who used a lot of Metallica’s music in their previous Paradise Lost films, were hired to make a standard “making of” piece to accompany the album’s release, but wound up chronicling the band members’ joint therapy sessions as well as their outside pursuits. And therein lies what makes the movie so compelling: we are allowed to see the members of Metallica as people, not as image-conscious “rock gods”. By letting their guard down and revealing that they’re flawed human beings like the rest of us, they’ve ironically become more interesting. Funny how that works.

Then again, Metallica have never been your typical metal band. I remember reading reviews of the film upon its release where the critics seemed absolutely shocked that these guys didn’t spend the entire running time drooling, drinking heavily, committing various sexual acts with groupies and sacrificing farm animals to Satan. I have to wonder, have these people ever actually listened to Metallica? (I would guess, probably not) Given how much of their music expresses not just anger but anguish, as well as a deep reservoir of sadness and emotional pain (long before it became fashionable in rock music, and these days almost a cliché), it should come as no surprise that these men actually have sensitive and vulnerable sides. They’ve never made the usual “rock and roll all night and party every day” music that for so long characterized metal, so the fact that they come off as reasonably intelligent and articulate shouldn’t shock anybody. If you’re looking for another This is Spinal Tap, you’re not going to get it here.

What did surprise me was that I expected a lot more knock-down, drag-out arguments than are actually contained within the film. Particularly the animosity between founding members Hetfield and Ulrich, who are the band’s driving creative forces, is pronounced but rarely boils to a head. There are times when these guys can’t stand each other, but they can’t seem to figure out how to say it out loud. This is where Towle comes in, but he seems less like a therapist than a negotiator, a guy who’s there to serve as a conduit for communication. He doesn’t really seem to do anything except say, “why don’t you guys just say what you feel?” I guess that’s his job, but you wonder why they really need him to accomplish that. Then again, without his presence Hetfield and Ulrich might have killed each other.

One positive aspect of the film is that it highlights the band’s acumen as musicians. Yes, it takes actual talent to make music as intricate and complex as Metallica’s, and creating an album (even one I don’t personally like that much) is work. Some people actually think that rock music just comes straight out of the musicians’ heads directly onto CD. The studio scenes here reveal just how wrongheaded that kind of thinking is. Watching these four guys (counting producer Bob Rock, who fills in on bass as well) actually collaborate on creating their songs, building them piece by piece and hotly debating over each others’ work, is tremendously informative to those who don’t really understand the process. It’s even more interesting to watch them hold auditions for a new bass player, ultimately deciding on Trujillo, a former member of Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne’s band. A lot of talented and accomplished musicians were up for the job, but Trujillo actually seems like the perfect fit. I’m not a musician myself, but based on the way he jammed with them and his general laid-back disposition, I can easily understand why he was chosen. I know a lot of people were puzzled by his selection, but after seeing this I think they’ll be looking forward to the next Metallica record.

It’s not until Trujillo comes on board that Metallica seems like a full-fledged band again, not just three guys in search of a direction. They were a band in transition at the time, a group of musicians who weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do next or even whether or not they would get anything done at all. I think St. Anger was a product of that sense of uncertainty. Their future was a big question mark, in spite of their enormous success (or maybe partially because of it). What do you do next when you’ve done everything? It’s to their credit that they came through it all with a renewed sense of purpose, and Some Kind of Monster is a fascinating document of this specific point in the band’s history.

Paramount Home Video has put together an impressive 2-disc set, including 40 deleted scenes, 2 commentaries, and interviews and Q&A sessions from various film festivals and premieres. It’s difficult to imagine a better or more satisfying package for this particular film (if only Paramount would put this much effort into more of their releases!). If you’re a fan, it’s definitely worth picking up. If you’re not, it’s worth a rental just to see a really good documentary. It might even motivate me to give St. Anger one more listen. Maybe.

***1/2 5/10/05

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