Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster / ***½ (NR)

James Hetfield
Lars Ulrich
Kirk Hammet
Robert Trujillo
Jason Newsted
Dave Mustaine
Bob Rock
Phil Towle

IFC Films presents a documentary produced and directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Running time: 140 minutes. No MPAA rating.

My personal experience with Metallica is limited. They have some songs I like, and every once and a while I’m in the mood for their particular brand of ultra-heavy rockin’. I’ve mostly handled Metallica vicariously through friends who were amped when their “Black Album” was released, but had already gained a much higher appreciation of their early albums. I enjoyed the exposure this gave me to the group, but never had the desire to become intimate enough with their music to purchase an album of my own. Of course, this is more attention many people would have given the band before now, but their new documentary depicting the making of their latest studio album St. Anger might include enough unsuspected elements involved in their artistic process to interest more than just the heavy metal fan base.

Some Kind of Monster starts like a typical behind the scenes look at one of the world’s most popular rock groups, which generally is an experience for fans only, but the film slowly evolves into an unusual look at the near disintegration of a fragile alliance of men who have spent most of their lives together. The involvement of IFC Films and award winning documentarians, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky of the Paradise Lost series, helming the project is an indicator that this is not going to be the average love fest of most band endorsed behind the music productions. It is like the ultimate VH1’s Behind the Music episode where they reveal all of a particular band’s dirty little secrets. And yet it goes much further than just telling the sad story of the Metallica money making machine, and brings the audience a look into band and personal decisions that feel like they should be much more private than a filmed document allows them to be.

The story of Metallica presented here kicks off with the MTV News announcement that longtime bass player Jason Newsted is leaving the band, citing personal reasons and physical distress that are so vague it is easy to tell something bad is brewing within the band. Soon it is revealed that the band is approaching their new album in a way they have never approached a project before. Renting space in San Francisco’s famous former military compound the Presidio, the band is determined to write everything from scratch in the studio sessions. Along with inviting the documentary film crew along for the ride, the band has also hired a therapist, group performance enhancement specialist Phil Towle, to help them with their band dynamic since the departure of their bassist. With all these new elements on the table, I quickly found myself thinking, “Well, now they are just asking for some sort of meltdown, aren’t they?”

Perhaps, part of the band’s genius is their ability to stick their necks out for their craft, as they did with their highly publicized battle with music download progenitors Napster. The band fielded a great deal of negative backlash from their fans over their lawsuit against the music sharing company. The filmmakers choose not to deal with the travails of this endeavor until near the end of the film when the entire situation is in a state of chaos. But the film itself could be an incredibly shrew business move to continue to build the publicity juggernaut that is Metallica, with much the same wounded (but sound business) results that had the Napster incident garnering the band the label “the most hated band in rock.”

Individually the band members are in the habit of sticking their necks out as well. As events heat up to a boil at the Presidio, with accusations flying and doors slamming, front man James Hetfield suddenly leaves and admits himself into a rehabilitation program for his alcohol abuse. The band and their new album remain in a state of limbo for a year while Hetfield hashes his own personal demons out. Drummer Lars Ulrich, however, seems to carry his demons around with him. There is a fascinating section where Ulrich and Towle try to deal with the impact Ulrich’s father has had on his work. The most intriguing part of these therapy sessions is the fact that his father is present for them.

While the in studio creative process of the band, fights and noodling included, is a surprising study of a way to produce popular music; it is eventually the intimate eavesdropping on the band’s therapy sessions that become the meat of this film. Watching Ulrich and Hetfield alternate between rolling their eyes at each other’s observations on the other’s actions becomes a source of tension that pulls you forward in anticipation of the next emotional explosion. All the while lead guitarist Kirk Hammet’s childish innocence seems to be the only thread preventing these two alpha males from ripping each other’s throats out.

Hetfield seems to take the most liberties with the band in the way he leaves things unsettled for so long while he is in rehab. During his absence there is a surprisingly emotional reunion between Ulrich and former band member Dave Mustaine, who was kicked out by the rest of the band before their star had fully risen. It almost seems Mustaine himself could be the subject of a feature length documentary studying the lengths to which an emotionally damaged person will hold a grudge over a twenty-year period. Upon Hetfield’s return the dynamics created by squeezing one person who has been through a life-changing period back into his old environment are even more extreme despite Hetfield’s more balanced emotional status.

As the band approaches it 715th day working on the new album and its inevitable completion becomes more of a sure thing, a great deal of order has been restored to the group and the auditions for their new bassist begins to resemble something a little closer to a typical behind the scenes rockumentary. By that time the strange environment the band has developed for itself has had a profound, even visible, effect on its members, and the therapy phrase “If you want to go deeper…” has become a tool of each of their vocabularies. When they embark on the promotional tour for their new album, the opening theme music for the tour the band has chosen is from Ennio Morricone’s score to the film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, an appropriate summation of everything that comes out of their latest experiment captured in this film for all to see.

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