Posted by Aaron West, 7/10/04
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Directed by Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Starring: James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Bob Rock, Jason Newstead
Running Time: 120 minutes
Let me preface this review by saying that I'm not a Metallica fan. I did enjoy their first three albums, ages ago. I grew out of metal and they grew into pop (sorta), so the parting worked out for both of us. I have absolutely loathed everything I've heard from them in the years since, especially the stuff off their latest LP, which happens to be the subject of this documentary.
Picture Metallica, the most successful heavy metal band ever, 20 years into their career, having sold over 90 million albums. It's not easy thinking of them as daddies who take their daughters to ballerina class, or art connoisseurs that enjoy drinking fine wine at auctions. This is a side of Metallica that not only have we never seen, but we probably couldn't have even imagined given their aggressive facade. This is, in essence, the subject of the documentary. Sure, it all takes place during the recording of St. Anger, and there's a lot more background and history with the band. Most of their problems, however, stem from their being old guys who just can't hang onto the "metal up your a**" adage that they coined in their heyday.
Fortunately for the filmmakers, this is most likely the best time in Metallica's career to capture events in a documentary. Bassist Jason Newstead has just left the band due to creative differences, James Hetfield is still struggling from alcoholism, and band cannot talk to each other without resorting to shouting to get their points across. It is a tense setting that inhibits creative energy rather than encouraged it. The band hires a $40,000/month shrink in order to get into working shape again. Due to the therapy theme, the documentary is much more invasive than others. We really get to see inside the musicians. We see their demons, their frustrations, and we see them at their most vulnerable.
Through therapy, the band does make slight progress recording at a Presidio location in San Francisco, but plenty of complications loom ahead. Over time, Metallica, specifically Hetfield, become irritable again and the fighting resumes. The recording session ends when James Hetfield checks himself into an alcohol treatment facility. The rest of the band lies in limbo, not sure when, or even if James will return to complete the album. What began as a glimpse at a troubling time in the band's life, becomes one of the most significant points in their entire career.
The story is divided in half: before rehab and after rehab. James isn't the same person when he returns from treatment. His newfound sobriety is important to him, as is his career, and it isn't apparent whether the two can coexist. At times the new Hetfield seems self-absorbed, childish, and sometimes seems like a prima donna, while at other times he shows genuine compassion and good deductive reasoning. His is a remarkable story of a complicated, changed man.
Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are already established and highly respected documentarians, having already received critical raves for their work on Paradise Lost and Brother's Keeper. They are the secret ingredient that sets this film apart from an episode of VH1: Behind the Music. Their experience is apparent in every scene. They constantly get good shots, especially when they capture reactions of band members during debate and conversation. Of course the best documentarians are great editors and that is truly the case here. This film is cut together carefully so that the narrative flows naturally, without any bland moments.
If Some Kind of Monster can be criticized for anything, that would be for trying to cover too much. However, with a verite film such as this, the director doesn't have control of the story. Throughout the therapeutic struggle to create, the issue of the missing bassist lingers, and isn't resolved until the album is released. So the pursuit of a new bassist doesn't take place until the end of the film, when all the primary struggles have concluded. Yet, the pursuit of the new bandmate is interesting in its own right and functions as an entertaining "subplot", if you will. Not to mention, the film would been drastically incomplete without it. Other directors may have manipulated the chronology of the narrative in the interest of flow, placing the bassist tryouts earlier in the picture. Berlinger and Sinofsky have to be commended for honoring their subject and not revealing the new monster, complete with a 4th head, until the finale of their brilliant documentary.
In a year of great documentaries, musical or otherwise, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster will stand out among the best. Berlinger and Sinofsky's work, combined with the upcoming release of DiG! and the possible release of a controversial White Stripes portrait, will no doubt influence a league of other verite, rock star portraits. Let's just hope future documentarians use their cameras in the interest of providing insight into a captivating life, rather than a two hour commercial or music video.