Metallica loves you.
No, really, they do. And they can love you because they have learned to truly, truly love themselves and each other.
That’s the message they try to convey in Some Kind of Monster,
the documentary covering nearly 3 years of Metallica’s life as they
engage in round the clock therapy (or “performance coaching,” if you
prefer) while recording their latest record, St. Anger.
Fortunately for the audience, they miserably fail. Originally conceived
as a publicity puff piece, the project instead mutated into a
psychodrama that repeatedly forces us to ask one question over and
again: How could any thinking person endure such a barrage of feel-good
do-goodery and psychobabble without killing? Luckily, Metallica’s
members lack inner lives.
Once upon a time Metallica were
dark gods. Representing forces beyond the comprehension of mortal ken,
their t-shirts served as de facto school uniforms for the hordes of
synaptically challenged adolescents they commanded. They mercilessly
rampaged through world tours, “killing scores with demon swords,” as
one lyric from 1983’s Kill ‘Em All put it, and sitting on a
dragon’s horde of women and assorted intoxicants. All this while being
ignored by mainstream radio and considered untouchables by the
kingmakers at MTV for a decade.
Then hell froze over. At least that’s what Spin magazine emblazoned across the cover of the issue featuring the already veteran band as they achieved mainstream success with their 1991 Black Album.Cracks soon started to show in the silence that had allowed them to maintain a larger than life aura, one that lent their music and stage presence a legitimacy that few bands could achieve or maintain.
The difference is easily seen when comparing the movie at hand to Paradise Lost, a 1996 documentary about the murder, rape and sexual mutilation of three young boys in Arkansas and the sham trial of the three teenagers accused. (Both movies were directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky; the earlier one featured a Metallica score.) Listening to three boys sacrificed to sate a brutally conformist community’s bloodlust discuss their feelings is riveting filmmaking. Listening to spoiled rock stars do the same is considerably less so. Not that it isn’t fun to see them try.
The flick starts with guitarist/vocalist/Cowardly Lion imposter James Hetfield checking himself into rehab while recording St. Anger, leaving drummer and co-founder Lars Ulrich to sweep up the mess. After a nearly year long hiatus, Hetfield returns, having lost the ability to speak in anything other than the clichés of addiction and recovery. Watching him turn from a vodka-swilling bear hunter to a would-be Ozzie Nelson who can work only four hours a day so he can catch his daughter’s ballet recitals is not only priceless, but strong encouragement to drink.
Ulrich is no prince either. Watching as he loudly and obnoxiously snaps gum while goading Hetfield at every turn is intolerable to the point where you want to wallop him on the back of the head, both to get sense into his skull and to dislodge that damn gum. Perhaps Ulrich’s inability to deal with other humans stems from not being raised by one; his father, who also makes an appearance in the film and resembles a Danish version of Rasputin, has no qualm with telling him how God awful he finds the new tracks.
Hetfield and Ulrich are shockingly naïve. Ulrich’s war with Napster, where he obtains a court order to get a list of the thousands of fans who had “hijacked our music without permission” (how does one hijack anything with permission?) sparks an unprecedented fan backlash, which anyone but them could have seen coming. Hetfield gets an attack of jackass disease too, quibbling with his manager over having to shill for a radio contest. When the voice on the speakerphone calmly explains that this is one of the largest radio chains in the country and that they could make air time scarce for St. Anger, Hetfield asks, like a wounded child, “Would they do that? Screw you for not doing something for them?”
“Yes, James,” the exasperated manager replies.
The vilest member of the band, though, is neither Ulrich nor Hetfield, but lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, who mopes about with the big eyes of a Will Keane waif as his bandmates seethe at each other, making himself unobtrusive while Mommy and Daddy are fighting. His gutlessness masquerading as moral fortitude actually provides the film with its most hilarious moments, as when during a songwriting session he interjects with quasi-Buddhist claptrap. “I spend a large amount my time downplaying my ego and trying to be an example to the other guy,” he says while shaking his peanut head with conviction. “It’s part of my beliefs.”
Comparisons to This is Spinal Tap, the comedy classic about a bloated and intellectually challenged rock band, are legion in the press for obvious reasons. The most amusing is the uncanny resemblance of Metallica’s bassist problems to Tap’s drummer issues. Original band member Cliff Burton perished in a bus crash during while on tour in Sweden; replacement Jason Newsted quit simply so he wouldn’t have to deal with Ulrich and Hetfield. Currently, it’s Robert Trujillo’s turn on the wheel. Formerly a bassist for terrible acts like Infectious Grooves, Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osborne, Trujillo is the only one here exhibiting genuine enthusiasm for music. Incapable of self-consciousness (unlike the rest of the band, who are only unconscious), Trujillo’s eyes pop out of his head when shown the arsenal of guitars and basses at his disposal and launches into each song like he’s attacking a creature from the Dungeon Master’s guidebook.
It reminds you that the rest of the band used to do that, too.