PRINT April 2004


Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

STRANGE TO SAY, at the very moment the rock-critical establishment finally discovered the ephemeral genius of avant-disco pioneer Arthur Russell (the adulation is lost on Russell, who died poor, of AIDS-related illness, in 1992), I found myself joining the millions who had plunked down their twenty bucks for St. Anger, the 2003 album by Metallica, a band that had always been—how shall I put this?—outside my sphere of reality. What activated my desire for this particular fetish object, which I probably will never play, was the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Scheduled for an early-summer release, Metallica premiered at Sundance, where it jolted the exhausted festival audience like a cocktail of illegal substances.

At the time, I found it somewhat odd that this film should be so exhilarating. It begins with its subject in meltdown, goes on to chart the band’s slow, fairly mundane recovery, and culminates in a brief glimpse of a triumph that will surprise no one even vaguely familiar with Top 40 charts. But the appeal of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s Metallica lies in the inherent fascination of the creative process, as practiced not by an individual but, rather, by three or four talents who, despite their incompatibilities, inner demons, and the pressures of the music industry, fuse as an axiom of mass culture.

Metallica begins in 2003 on the eve of a world tour and the release of St. Anger. Through a montage of press interviews, fan days, archival concert footage, and a couple of intertitles, the filmmakers give the Metallica-challenged viewer the basic facts of the band’s twenty-year history before flashing back to 2001, where the film’s narrative proper begins with a flurry of MTV News–worthy events: Metallica build a no-frills recording studio in a disused barracks in San Francisco’s Presidio; Metallica bass player Jason Newsted quits when founding member and vocalist James Hetfield refuses to allow him to moonlight with a new band; and Metallica hire Phil Towle, a “therapist and performance-enhancement coach.” Towle, who has the manner of a slightly smarmy Mr. Rogers as well as Mr. Rogers’s penchant for sweaters (albeit of the higher-end variety), specializes in bettering the bonding arrangements of professional sports teams and music groups. His presence, for which the band paid a forty-thousand-dollar-a-month retainer, is priceless for the film. A rockumentary about Metallica in the studio would have been no more compelling than the music itself, but add the element of four angry metalheads in the equivalent of marriage counseling and you have, unexpectedly, a template for a generation forced to recognize that remaining an adolescent when you’re turning forty is a problem. Yikes! Metallica—they’re us, and when they’re not drunk or acting out they’re really sweet.

As is the pattern of therapy, things get worse before they can get better. About two months into the frustrating recording stint, Hetfield storms out of the studio, enters rehab, and is incommunicado for nine months. Left in limbo, the remaining Metallica members—drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett, and producer Bob Rock (temporarily drafted on bass)—continue to attend regular sessions with Towle, including one where Ulrich introduces the therapist to his dad, a former tennis champion and connoisseur of the Copenhagen jazz scene of the ’50s and ’60s. “Metallica brought a kind of physicality to rock ’n’ roll,” opines the elder Ulrich, who looks like Father Time and in a subsequent scene is shown happily curling up in his son’s lap. Lars, undoubtedly, picked up from his father a taste for the off-kilter drumbeats that drive Hetfield crazy as well as his interest in splashy abstract and neo-expressionist painting. When he unloads his collection at Christie’s, its centerpiece, Basquiat’s Profit I, 1982, sells for $5.5 million (still a record for the artist).

After Hetfield returns—svelte and sober—new conflicts and power struggles arise. He limits himself to four hours a day in the studio and won’t allow the others to work without him, for fear they’ll talk behind his back. But gradually the band begin to deflect the anger necessary for their creativity onto the outside world. The two strongest tracks on St. Anger are inspired by Ulrich’s lawsuit against Napster (which, he says contentedly, made him the most hated man in rock) and the band’s outrage when a powerful radio network tries to bully them into making station promos for the first time in their career.

Berlinger and Sinofsky are offshoots of the Maysles brothers (sometimes) fly-on-the-wall school of nonfiction filmmaking. Acclaimed for their theatrically released documentaries Brother’s Keeper (1992) and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), they, like their elders, have supported themselves doing entertainment-world docs-for-hire. The film that became Metallica: Some Kind of Monster was commissioned by Elektra, the band’s recording company. Later, Metallica themselves took over the financing. Although the filmmakers include one scene where they and the band discuss whether it’s productive to continue shooting, the details of the deal they make with Metallica are not revealed—specifically, who has final cut. The financing situation and the filmmakers’ editing ethics, which permits occasional tinkering with chronology in the interests of narrative momentum, will give documentary purists pause. One also might wonder what truly monstrous images—archival and contemporary—were relegated to the digital waste bin. Still, one has to admire the band’s courage in allowing their fans to see them on the verge of tears—even if their shrink is the only one to actually cry.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight and Sound.