Metallica is arguably the greatest heavy metal band since the originators, Black Sabbath. And like the primordial Sabbs, Metallica has often sung about the horrors of war, literal and metaphorical (“Battery,” “Disposable Heroes” and “One” are three tracks that spring to mind.) But with the real-life horrors of war ever present in our minds, why should anyone be interested in a 135-minute documentary about the internal warfare of this band of rich, pampered, arrogant rock stars?
It doesn’t hurt to be a fan. This critic, it so happens, has been one since 1986, when the metal masterpiece Master of Puppets went gold with no radio or MTV play, launching Metallica’s assault on the rock mainstream. The following years brought the epochal self-titled “Black Album,” the two-year sold-out world tour, multiple Grammy awards. Metallica had boiled hard rock down to its essence, sent ’80s poodle-hair metal packing, soldiered on while Guns N’ Roses imploded, and blazed a trail for the introspective, intelligent skull-thumping of Nirvana and the Seattle grunge brigade.
But by the late ’90s, the inevitable decline had begun: after two albums of relatively uninspired boogie rawk (Load and Re-Load), a bloated live double-album with the San Francisco Symphony and a weak song from the Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack, Metallica fans started to dread what might come next. A DJ? Female backup singers and a horn section? A Diet Pepsi commercial?
Then it got even worse, when drummer and band spokesman Lars Ulrich decided to take on Napster – not a stance the fans welcomed – and the somewhat acrimonious departure of bassist Jason Newsted. The band’s influence was everywhere and its place in rock history assured (their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is guaranteed for 2008, their first year of eligibility). But the question remained: would the mighty Metallica survive into the 21st century? They’d given everything to their fans and made it to the musical mountaintop. They were multimillionaires, legends, rock gods – but could they compete with the likes of Korn, Limp Bizkit and, god help us, Creed?
If you’re not a true Metallicat, you’ve stopped reading already. If not, the most important thing to know about Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s fascinating new documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” is that it’s the most thorough examination of an album’s creation since the Beatles’ “Let It Be” (and nowhere near as depressing!) But the recording of the album in question, St. Anger, is only one facet of the film. The filmmakers’ real interest lies in revealing the traumas, insecurities and relationships of the band members. Fuck yeah, rock fans – it’s heavy metal therapy time!
Berlinger and Sinofsky were a natural choice to direct what began as a band-sanctioned, Elektra Records-funded documentary intended for MTV or perhaps network airing – a “promo,” in other words. The filmmakers had been the grateful recipients of Metallica’s largess when the band donated a large number of its songs for use in their two acclaimed “Paradise Lost” documentaries. Over two years and 600 hours of footage later, the filmmaking team had learned more about Metallica than anyone outside the band ever did. What no one expected was for the film itself to turn into such an “emotional journey,” such a “healing process” (try not to gag).
The process began sometime in 2001, when Metallica – not having recorded any original material in quite some time, in fact not having spent much time together at all – reconvened in a spartan porta-studio on the grounds of San Francisco’s Presidio. “We don’t want to be comfortable,” states lead singer-guitarist James Hetfield. The band’s producer, Bob Rock, would fill in on bass for the departed Newsted. Also present was a highly-paid “performance enhancement coach” named Phil Towle, a guy who essentially helps rich, famous and powerful men get in touch with their inner fuzzy-wuzzy Care Bear.
Problems emerged almost instantly, centering around Hetfield’s lack of inspiration and general unhappiness. While Ulrich and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett seem to have grown into responsible family men, content despite having entered middle age, Hetfield was clearly miserable; his troubles with self-expression were hardly limited to a lack of words to sing or riffs to play. Despite the ever-present Towle’s support, it’s exquisitely painful to watch these ass-kicking egomaniacs gently dancing around the real issues, trying hard to respect each other’s feelings. Kindness and compassion don’t come easy to this crew.
Hetfield doesn’t last long – soon it’s off to rehab for him, to deal with his 20-plus years of unrestrained alcohol abuse. In his absence, Berlinger and Sinofsky spend time with Jason Newsted, who is off performing with his own band Echobrain and seems fairly well-adjusted to life outside Metallica. They also interview former Metallica lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, whose obvious intelligence is exceeded only by his bitterness; despite having sold some 15 million records with Megadeth, he still apparently believes he’s achieved nothing. Best of luck to him.
It gets stranger. Suddenly, within the film, there’s debate about whether to continue with the film. There’s debate about unresolved feelings relating to the awful 1986 bus accident which killed original bassist Cliff Burton. There’s debate about whether Metallica has any future at all. In a word, it’s riveting. It’s also a testament to Berlinger and Sinofsky’s skill and empathy that by the time Hetfield returns to the scene – over a year after he left for rehab – it seems the fate of the free world hangs on what our headbanging heroes will do next. Hetfield begins writing, singing and playing his new so-called “recovery rock” – and bang, they’re off and running. Out comes “Frantic,” the band’s killerest song since “No Leaf Clover” five years earlier, if not since the glory days of 1991 and the Black Album and “Sad But True.” (Appropriately, “Frantic” ended up being the opening track on St. Anger.)
However, when the question arises of coach Phil Towle’s future with the band, things get dicier than ever. Apparently a little too used to his easy rapport with Metallica – not to mention his $40,000-a-month salary – Towle begins to be perceived as a possible drain on the band’s energies, like poor Brian Wilson’s infamous Dr. Eugene Landy but without the meds. “He’s under the impression he’s in the band,” Hetfield grouses at one point. (As it turns out, Towle still works with Metallica to this day.)
Hetfield and Ulrich deal with ego and power struggles, as ever, but the studio work is clearly more fun, and the results improve for all. (But percussion geeks looking for some explanation of Ulrich’s odd, pinging drum sound on the album are out of luck.) And while Hetfield rarely gives his standard glower a rest, Ulrich is always good for a laugh – especially when he drinks himself silly to dull the pain of selling a favorite Basquiat painting for $5 million. There’s even comedy in the fact that when Metallica finally selects a permanent new bassist – Robert Trujillo from Ozzy Osbourne’s band – Osbourne soon replaces Trujillo with, you guessed it, Jason Newsted. Heavy metal bands make such strange bedfellows.
Credit the band’s considerable respect for Berlinger and Sinofsky that they opted to buy back the intended promo film – now a mutant monstrosity of epic proportions – from Elektra for a cool $2 million, and let the filmmakers finish the project as they saw fit. The result will stand as one of the most intense, in-depth, warts-and-all rockumentaries ever made – VH1’s “Behind the Music” cranked up to 11 and beyond.
Commercially speaking? “Some Kind of Monster” could prove to be the smartest move Metallica could make. St. Anger may not have been the classic “return to form” that every Metallica fan was praying for, but it certainly pointed the band in a promising creative direction. Now, though, almost anyone who experiences this film – Metallica fan or not – will come out so curious to hear the album that it would be no surprise to see St. Anger, a year after it was first released, storm the top of the charts all over again.