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By KJ Doughton | June 22, 2004

Imelda would no doubt scoff at the fashion sense of Metallica’s stripped-down rocker garb, although she might salivate over the band’s staggering bank balance. Historically, bandmates Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, and a cluster of cursed bassists have sold a stupendous, obscene number of records (90 million and counting), while remaining more or less intact as other metal immortals implode, fade away, or fall into self-parody. They are, without question, the most successful hard rock act of all time.

Give them points for longevity. A two-pronged, devils sign salute is certainly warranted, considering that Metallica have churned out their brutal blend of punishing sounds for over twenty years. And not just any sounds. The Metallica mix isn’t merely audio-fierce; it’s also physically demanding. James Taylor can knock out “Handy Man” until he croaks – but it’s highly unlikely this mellow folkie could whip out “Whiplash” and knock down vodka for two decades without suffering traumatic brain injuries and Korsakoff’s Syndrome. Even fellow audio-death legends like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath have cried uncle and disbanded after only a fraction of the time Metallica has endured (ditto for more recent hard rock franchises like Nirvana and Alice In Chains).

That Metallica are prolific, tough, and influential is a given. But with “Some Kind of Monster,” the band invites viewers to psychoanalyze this undying, weathered beast during a particularly vulnerable point in its career. Respected documentary veterans Joe Berlinger and Brad Sinofsky, who blew away audiences with “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost” (before Berlinger cashed in on the bogus “Blair Witch” sequel), collaborated with the band in early 2001 to film a “making of” rock-doc as their subjects recorded the long-awaited album, “St. Anger.”

But as is the case with a startling number of recent documentaries (“Capturing the Friedmans”), their cameras began charting a completely separate phenomenon in the Metallica camp from that which had been planned. The group essentially dissolved before their eyes. Bassist Jason Newsted resigned, frontman/rhythm guitarist Hetfield entered rehab “for alcoholism and other addictions,” and remaining members struggled through a limbo of uncertainly and dread. Why had Newsted called it quits, and who would replace him? Would Hetfield ever come back?

Ultimately, the movie becomes a glimpse at wounded egos and a dismantled music machine limping towards something vaguely resembling recovery. They hire psychologist Phil Towle as a kind of mental mechanic, to rebuild them and offer group therapy. Towle interjects clinical groupspeak with such prompts as, “Wanna talk about that? What does it mean?” The star-struck shrink fabricates band mission statements proclaiming, “We have become healers of ourselves,” and tapes signs around the studio scrawled with such epiphanies as, “admission is believing.”

The therapy sessions are an odd mix of self-help rhetoric (“get in the zone”) and uncomfortable stabs at diplomatic communication. Hetfield handles his unease with abrupt bursts of laughter. Drummer Ulrich becomes passive aggressive (after a clearly-enunciated yet disagreeable point is made by others in the group, he whines, “Huh? I wasn’t paying attention.”). Guitarist Hammett plays the equivalent to Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls, pleading for everyone to just get along. In fact, the easygoing axeman emerges as one of “Some Kind of Monster”’s understated heroes. The least ego-stricken of the group, he handles all the chest thumping and testosterone around him with a Zen-like grace.

Ditto for Newsted, who speaks of his ex-band with such articulate, clear-eyed sincerity that we wish he had more screen time than the token scraps he’s thrown. “Their plate is filled with many things,” the bassist observes of Metallica, describing how the other members opted to start families while he stayed child-less, and the odd alienation this caused. Restless with the increasing down time demanded by his bandmates, Newsted helmed a side project, Echobrain. Hetfield denounced this desperate effort to rekindle some musical creativity as a betrayal. Newsted, meanwhile, felt stifled by Hetfield’s “limited acceptance.”

Because of this feud, and a host of other internal schisms, the band members didn’t speak to one another for months. When Newsted was presented with the idea of Towle – a “performance enhancement coach” charging $40,000 a month for his services – being hired by the Metallicamp to resolve their communication problems, he gawked. “I thought, this is really f*****g lame that we can’t just get together,” he explains bluntly. Apparently used to being ignored, Newsted made sure to get his point across by then leaving the band. (His decision to jump ship is particularly understandable to fans familiar with the sadistic gauntlet of abuse Newsted was forced to weather during his 1986 “initiation” into the band, following the untimely death of predecessor Cliff Burton.)

Another casualty of Metallica’s brutal interpersonal history rears his head in “Some Kind of Monster.” Replaced by Hammett as the band’s guitarist in 1983, Dave Mustaine was booted from Metallica following a cross-country tour plagued by alcohol-fueled fights (which he allegedly incited). His abrupt termination came without mercy. The band woke him up, broke the news, hastily whisked him home on a bus, and flew Hammett in the same day. Admirably, the charismatic player rebounded with follow-up band Megadeth, forging his own legend separate from Metallica and chalking up sales of 15 million discs. However, after Towle suggests that the one-time member and Ulrich have a sit-down to hash out their differences, it becomes apparent that the scars still run deep.

“Everything you do turns to gold,” laments Mustaine, “while everything I do f*****g backfires. People hate me because of you.” Mustaine honestly fesses up to the fact that he can’t listen to Metallica on the radio. There’s too much emotional baggage to bear. Aware of Hetfield’s rehab attendance and alcohol struggles, Mustaine also makes a point of addressing the band’s unwillingness to offer him the same opportunity to dry out when he was wrestling with similar demons. Ulrich appears to cringe at his ex-buddy’s cathartic venting, and we’re not sure the drummer is really hearing what’s being said. He seems more comfortable when he’s chugging wine at art galleries and selling Basquiat paintings for $5 million a shot.

Indeed, the inability to relate to Ulrich and other group co-founder Hetfield is one of the problems with “Some Kind of Monster.” The arguments and complaints voiced against these two bandleaders are easy to understand. What did Hetfield expect Newsted to do after 15 years of pranks, ultimatums, and browbeating? And for a band that built their foundation from full-scale, grass roots demo trading, wasn’t Ulrich even a tad prepared for the flack he would get in 2000, after legally banning fans from Napster after they had downloaded Metallica songs through the popular file-swapping service?

We certainly welcome Hetfield’s newfound happiness and sobriety when he returns from several months of rehab. Appearing more relaxed upon his re-appearance, the intimidating icon’s trademark “F**k You” scowl is nowhere to be seen. It would appear that time away from Metallica has done him well. It’s a bit sad, then, when this less angry, more introspective man resumes his partnership with “St. Anger,” and is forced to regurgitate the angst that he seemed to have outgrown.

Kirk Hammett’s down-to-earth charm is easier to embrace. And the one time he’s upset – while lamenting the group’s questionable decision to jettison all guitar solos from “St. Anger” – we can empathize. When Metallica was grappling for direction on records like “Load,” Hammett continued to evolve his craft, tossing slide guitar and unique harmonics into the increasingly tired mix. He’s one of rock’s most reliable musicians, so it’s understandable when he rants against the other members’ insistence that axe solos are a dated device. “That’s so bullshit,” counters Hammett. “If you don’t have guitar solos, it dates the music to this time; this (current musical) trend of no guitar solos.” Well said.

If “Some Kind of Monster” fails to make its heroes look sympathetic, it does a surgical job of placing viewers into the inventive heart of Metallica’s songwriting process. There are jangling jolts of audio tension and unrest on the album that rival Metallica’s angriest moments from the early days, and “Some Kind of Monster” shows us precisely what inspired such bitter sound-nuggets. Pushed by management to participate in a goofy “Win Metallica’s Money” radio promotion, Hetfield grunts his distaste over such politics. “Wash your back so you don’t stab mine,” he complains, before later incorporating the line into “Sweet Amber,” one of the record’s more thunderous cuts. We watch other tracks form from similar camera-captured frustrations, including the unreleased “Temptation,” sung by Hetfield over an eerie montage of booze, tits, and other arena-rock excesses the Rock God has struggled with over the years. “Shoot Me Again” refers to the hits taken from Napster fans demonizing Metallica as corporate w****s.

We’re also provided with glimpses of the mysterious, paternal mentors that surround Metallica’s musicians. The band’s thriving empire is obviously the product of numerous pistons pumping behind Hetfield, Ulrich, and Hammett, and we see the guiding hands of producer Bob Rock, managers Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch, and attorney Peter Paterno providing guidance. There’s also the Gandalf-like presence of Ulrich’s father Torben, a one-time tennis legend in Denmark whose lengthy beard gives him a wise, soothsayer-like appearance. When asked by his drumming son to critique a song snippet played for him in the studio, the elder is elegantly blunt. “If I were an advisor,” Torben suggests, stroking his beard with a hand, “I’d say, delete that.”

“Some Kind of Monster” is an involving film, but Berlinger and Sinofsky’s backstage odyssey ultimately feels a bit like an over-produced album with all of the rough edges deleted. In making sure that the band ultimately emerges as a conquering group of sympathetic, admirable heroes, we get a lot of Metallica and very little of its critics (who seem to have interesting perspectives). But the band nearly incriminates itself without outside help. Late in the film, as Metallica is recruiting new bassist Robert Trujillo, Ulrich justifies a point by saying, “It’s not about what he says. It’s about how I feel.” We wonder if the months of insight training have really left an impact. The way it stands, “Some Kind of Monster” does a better job accenting the problems that caused their slump, than it does to confirm that they’ve actually resolved such issues.

Metallica owns the rights to “Some Kind of Monster,” so it’s unlikely that they would sanction something really unflattering – a movie that truly ripped the veneer from around this often-ruthless creature’s dark underbelly. But wouldn’t it be interesting to have a round table discussion with Mustaine, Newsted, and others who have faced Metallica’s wrath and have no vested interest in painting the band in an overly triumphant light? Or better yet, try to get the band to team up with Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe, the supremely troubled soul at the heart of “DIG!,” and watch the fur fly. Now that would make for an interesting movie.


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