Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Reviewed By Ryan Arthur
Posted 03/28/05 09:44:35

"Metal, dude! Fuckin’ metal!"
5 stars (Awesome)

I can’t help but feel that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster is about ten to twelve years too late in terms of relevance, but maybe that’s a good thing: it’s not quite a rebirth/reinvisioning of the band for a new audience, but is instead a peek into the center of a hard rock institution as it (seemingly) slowly implodes. Are kids even still listening to the mighty Met these days? Has Metallica crossed over into an almost nostalgia act? Is Dave Mustaine gonna cry? Yes, no, and maybe.

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a hardcore Metallica fan, and wasn’t really even in the band’s heyday. But I know enough about the group to know where things stand (and where the band has been to get where they are when things get rolling). The doc opens with quick backstory. Jason Newsted, late (really late) of Flotsam & Jetsam, has left Metallica, citing the “physical damage” that playing the music has caused him (possibly it was all that propeller-like headbanging) and to deal with “side project” Echobrain. It goes largely unsaid that Newsted is also tired of being ragged on, and still feels like the “new guy” of the band (after fifteen years, mind you), constantly harassed and tormented by his bandmates. Newsted replaced Cliff Burton, God bless ‘im, who is still dead.

The band is holed up in The Presidio, hard at work on the new album (which will eventually become St. Anger), literally working from scratch. Producer Bob Rock (“Hey peace, brother…hey, can I try that dress on some time?”) is pulling double-duty as producer and bass player during recording. Rock’s done some time in some smaller bands, but nothing quite on the level of Metallica. He wants the new album to be a return to the harder-edged Metallica, an …And Justice For All/Ride The Lightning sort of feel, and less of what ultimately led to Load (which, let’s face it, sucked). But something’s amiss. The creative juices aren’t flowing as easily, and the typical butting of heads between frontman/lead guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich has gotten, not necessarily nasty, but definitely to the point where everything is at a standstill, and the record label and management is worried that the project – and more importantly, the band – won’t make it to the end of the line.

Which brings us to the record company and band management’s solution: Phil Towle, therapist and “performance coach.” It’s his job to smooth the tension between Ulrich and Hetfield enough so that the band can – at the bare minimum – function, and ultimately complete the album. Not so easy. There’s simmering between Hetfield (a functioning alcoholic) and Ulrich (the outspoken leader of the group and a bit of an asshole) that’s been brewing for 20 years. Guitarist Kirk Hammett, soft-spoken (and sober!) as he is, tries to play peacemaker as best he can, but is more often shown in the background as Hetfield and Ulrich square off, like a kid watching his parents fight. Hetfield seems to be in the worse shape, up and leaving to go bear-hunting in Alaska (and missing his son’s first birthday to do so) before returning and entering rehab. For a year. Apparently without telling his bandmates. What started as a reality-type show for VH1 evolved into a documentation of the creation of the new album before finally settling into cameras catching the slow slide into self-destruction of a rock band. It’s when Hetfield returns a year later that things get really interesting, as his new-found sobriety (and personal limitations – he only allows himself to work from noon to four, so he can still be a good husband and father) is at odds with the whole rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, especially since Metallica – for the longest time – was referred to as Alcoholica due to the hard drinkin’, hard livin’ lifestyle. And then there’s Towle, who’s getting forty grand a month to hold these guys by their hands and ask them “how does that make you feel?”, and he almost feels as though he’s part of the band, passing lyrics to Hetfield (which is akin to somebody like me suggesting beats to Snoop Dogg) and talking about when “they” will be going on tour. You’re not going anywhere in those sweaters, Phil. You, sir, are not rock. You’re barely lite rock. The real moment of clarity comes when Ulrich and Hetfield finally agree on something: to cut Dr. Phil loose.

Needless to say, the album is finally completed, Bob Rock gets to perform on stage at least once with the band (“Stop smiling!”), and Newsted gets replaced (by Suicidal Tendencies and sometime Ozzy Osbourne bassist Robert Trujillo), so everything sort of works out in the end. What’s most fascinating is how it gets there.

Say what you want about the band’s music, but to get the access into the behind the scenes of the music and album-making process is incredibly interesting to audiophiles – the songwriting-by-committee process after it’s mostly been all Hetfield for years; seeing how it’s done; hashing it out, deciding what stays and goes; not to mention Ulrich’s near obsession with bringing down Napster – and seeing the inner workings of a group that has been together for as long as they have is incredible to watch. Seeing the band slowly self-destruct at their own hand gives insight into the whole musical phenomena of being a rock star…all while trying to reconcile the public persona with their home and family life. To see the rock star front be stripped away brings a certain amount of poignancy that I certainly didn’t expect. It’s not a concert film. It’s barely a “making of.”

Berlinger and Sinofsky shot an enormous amount of footage for the film, and you know there are about a dozen threads that could’ve continued, including the tangents of Ulrich’s whacked-out dad, Newsted’s insistence that he’s focusing on his new group (yet he’s still seemingly unable to let go of Metallica) and the appearance of former Metallica member Dave Mustaine (fired due to his drinking habits, ironically enough), who, despite being quite successful in his own right with Megadeth, still wishes he were with the group…Jason, I believe you know Dave…but as is, the film’s a surprisingly engaging look at the band that doesn’t pander to the black-shirted crowd, and instead offers up a solid, unfiltered look at a group that’s still evolving.

You don’t have to be a fan of the band to be intrigued by the film; indeed, it’s probably better if you’re not, so as not to be put off by your rock gods dealing with all that touchy-feely crap. But it’s still an incredibly interesting watch, regardless of how you feel about them.

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