I’ve never been a big fan of Metallica. I never got why anyone would pick up a Metallica record when Slayer is right there, evil, perfectly angry, freakishly scary. Heated aggressive metal should not go halfway—sorry. And I don’t want to rock out to positive speed metal.
That saying, during High School, I did see Metallica and was impressed by the voracity of their fans and the energy of their show. In a drunken stupor and desire to look at James Hetfield, I dared enter their pit where I promptly lost both my shoes and a chunk of my hair was pulled out by a hormone crazed 14-year old. When the concert was over my feet were bleeding. It was sick, sick fun. For a band with such a “positive” message of aggression, I’ve never been felt up and fucked with more than at that show. And I’ve seen The Mentors.
So it was with rock curiosity that I checked out the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, made by filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger, the men who brought us the masterful Brothers Keeper and both Paradise Lost documentaries. Chiefly, I wanted to see how one of the most '80s (underscore 1980's) innovative yet, currently hated bands in rock (thanks to the whole naming names Napster situation) would be treated by guys who had to deal with the very real life problems of the incarcerated Damien Echols. I mean, Metallica was supposed to be in therapy. What the fuck? Surely their lives can’t be that bad. Right? Well, if you think rich rehab or turning that corner in your life where you feel its time to sell a 5 million dollar Basquiat painting accounts for problems then, I guess you’ve got troubles.
OK, I’m not being fair. As revealed the band, are indeed, on the verge of breaking up which, in rock cliché, is tantamount to the dissolution of a marriage. Really, it’s much worse. We can stand another single dad on the loose, but a Van Halen without David Lee Roth? No, that should not be tolerated. Can you imagine if Metallica lead James Hetfield walked out of the band for good? We’d be left with the savvy businessman, Napoleon complex (and sucky title maker) Lars Ulrich and the easygoing (unless he doesn’t get his guitar solo), inner peace advocate Kirk Hammett searching for their Sammy Hagar. After Dave Mustaine was kicked out and bassist Cliff Burton died, the RAWK of Metallica was left squarely on Hetfield’s studly, Dionysian shoulders. Lars is a talented drummer for sure and he’s got good taste in home décor, but Hetfield always had the macho balls. By appearance anyway.
You see, while watching Some Kind of Monster, you’ll witness Rock God Hetfield smack dab in the middle of a 40-something crisis. It’s not terribly sad; the band is too successful to be deemed tragic, it’s just fascinating and surprisingly poignant. You like this guy—a lot (I do anyway, and not just for the weird, big teeth he shares with me). He looks like your best friend’s uncle you had a crush on in High School. You know the guy—the one who talked you down while you were in the middle of a bad acid trip. And though you wanted him to, he resisted the temptation of making a pass. A party animal, but a decent one nonetheless. The kind who looks back sadly on the mornings he wakes up with a stranger next to him.
And you’ll view the newly coifed (short hair) Hetfield even more touching while observing ever youthful Lars (does Lars age?) running around with relatively few demons. Maybe it’s all that tennis. Or art. Or his fantastic dad—a guy who looks like a figure from Norse Mythology, long father-time beard, stick walking cane and all. When pops tells Lars their new record sucks (he’s right) his son handles it with a laugh. See, healthy. Why does he need a therapist?
That therapist, a creepy 40,000-dollar-a-month doctor and "performance coach" named Phil Towle comes in after bassist Jason Newsted has exited the band (he’s interviewed stating how ridiculous the shrink idea is) just as Metallica is set to begin recording their new album “St. Anger.” Towle is the third party refereeing the bitter fights, fears and (oh god…) feelings of the band. Saying things like, anger is something you need to face; you wonder how these intelligent, thrash, emo-lyric metal guys could fall for this crap. Really, you can get that nugget of wisdom while flipping through a Dr. Phil book in the checkout line at the grocery store.
No wonder Hetfield, after a very Spinal Tap-ian argument with Lars walks out, enters rehab and doesn’t return nearly a year later. Poor guy. It’s more rock to buy more hot rods and enter Betty Ford than sit with some touchy feely interloper. A man, who (oh surprise!) gets overly involved enough to begin suggesting lyrics for the band. He even decides to sell his house in order to move where Metallica is (he states that’s not the reason but…yeah sure, he knows a paycheck when he sees one). The band becomes understandably suspicious. We’re just waiting for the doctor to break out astrological characters to represent different characteristics of band members.
The nervous discussion concerning the necessity of the doctor is a terrific moment where, you’ll like Lars. He snaps back at the guy for dragging “trust issues” to manipulate their own decisions. Lars is no dummy. Hetfield has, at this point, finally come back; ready to start again but set with recovery rules (he can only be in the recording studio from 12-4) which Lars has some logical problems meeting. But dammit, these filthy rich survivors are gonna get through this thing, even if it means more fights (my favorite being Hammett finally raising his voice over Lars' objection to a guitar solo—Hammett, who says he tries very hard to not be an egoist, makes a very good point here).
I also loved the clearly, haunted Hetfield, trying so hard to be well, square, a good dad (you’ll see his little daughter in ballet class) but you just know he’s going to fall off the wagon once the tour starts. Even with those eyeglasses that make him look like a crazy Swedish butcher (which is a good thing by the way—Hetfield never loses his craggy sex appeal--he's looking more and more like Tom Waites), he’s not fooling anyone. And why should he? Metallica hasn’t made a decent record in well over ten years (though I can’t help but embarrasingly enjoy the song "Enter Sandman"—the opening riffs anyway) maybe they need some more drugs and sex and booze.
So we’ve got a rock doc not about sex and drugs, but self absorbed feelings and sharing. The film’s pinnacle comes when ousted member Dave Mustaine (who would form Megadeath) drops by group session, facing off Lars (his “little Danish friend”) with the teary-eyed question “How do you think I feel?” Honestly, it’s pretty heartfelt, though not exactly rockin. Still, I had to hand it to Mustaine for being brave enough to allow this on screen. I’m a girl and I would never allow someone to film me emoting so nakedly. But I digress.
There is much to admire in Some Kind of Monster. Not only do you witness a recording process by rock dinosaurs hanging on to any discernable edge, you observe blowouts, a freaky doctor, band members slamming doors, new ones entering them (Suicidal Tendencies bassist Robert Trujillo who hits the jackpot with a million dollar advance) and yes, a Christies auction of Lars’ art collection. You have never seen, and probably will never see, anything like this. In terms of rock docs, its closest counterpart really is Spinal Tap (Lars even uses, quite blatantly, the term “shit sandwich” at one point). Which is what makes this documentary so wonderfully, sometimes hilariously enjoyable and incredibly endearing. It’s not down and dirty rock--its not, you know, Slayer, but a great, frequently masterful entertainment nonetheless.