I recently saw the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (IMDB). Regular readers of my blog (hello, you two) should know that I have pretty ecumenical music tastes. I used to be a huge fan of heavy metal: Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, the Scorpions, Judas Priest, and a whole bunch of bands you’ve probably never heard of. However, around the time Metallica first attracted attention in the early 1980s, my tastes had already started moving in other directions. It wasn’t until the 1989 song “One” became a hit that I actually heard anything by them. Given the seven-and-a-half minute song’s loud/quiet dynamics (I was digging the Pixies at the time) and anti-war stance, I thought they were interesting. I’d listen to subsequent songs that came across my car radio, but I have never bought any of their albums.
Ann Hornaday’s review in the Washington Post convinced me that this was a movie I needed to see. I’m a sucker for documentaries, and Monster filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are known for two previous, critically well-received works: Brother’s Keeper (1992) and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996). I disagree with Hornaday’s contention that this is a movie about a band struggling to remain relevant, although this theme is a thread. Rather, in Monster, the filmmakers focus on interpersonal relationships and the frustrations of the creative process. Yes, there are some Spinal Tap moments, but not many, in my opinion.
Like the HBO series The Sopranos, in which the viewer is let in on the thought processes of gangster Tony Soprano through his therapy sessions, Monster allows us to sit in on the sessions that the band, as a group, has with Kansas City therapist and performance coach Phil Towle. The documentary begins in 2001, when the band is about to record a new album. They’ve just fired their longtime bass player, Jason Newsted because he refused to quit his side project band, Echobrain, saying he needed it as an alternative creative outlet. This kind of clash becomes apparent in other developments in the band’s history. Drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist James Hetfield – both of them dominant personalities, in sharp contrast to the mellow Buddhism of lead guitarist Kirk Hammett – argue in the studio over each other’s playing style. At one point, Hetfield expresses unease with the idea of the other band members working on songs while he is out of the studio, saying that he doesn’t want to feel like he’s just being added to a finished product as an afterthought. Hammett responds with “That’s what I’ve felt like. [pause] For the last twenty years.” Years-old conflicts are revisited as former lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (he went on to form Megadeth), kicked out in 1983, comes to a session with Ulrich to discuss what the past two decades have been like for him. “Do I wish you guys had said, ‘Dave, you need to go to Alcoholics Anonymous?” he asks. “Yeah, I do.”
This kind of candor, and (however unlikely it sounds) the increasing fluency with which these heavy metal musicians are able to discuss how they feel towards each other and work through their disagreements without ultimatums make for a pretty compelling film. A lengthy portion of the film features Ulrich and his gnome-like father, and it’s clear that although he’s sold about 100 million records by this point, Ulrich still worries about what his father thinks of their new material. Upon hearing a new track, Ulrich senior gives it a thumbs down, and his son looks like he’s about to cry. When the band performs at a prison, Hetfield gives a brief, informal talk to the prisoners about anger (the new album will be called St. Anger) and the productive ways of channeling it before admitting that he’s nervous and doesn’t know what to say; the prisoners in the audience show their support by giving him the classic heavy metal hand gesture. The crew and his fellow bandmembers give him hugs as he comes offstage.
Hetfield goes into rehab to deal with his alcohol abuse, and the other band members (now just Ulrich and Hammett) don’t see him for a year and are unclear if he’ll still want to be in the band when he comes back. Upon his return, they create music according to a new work ethic: Hetfield needs to leave at 4:00 every day so he can be with his children. Although previously, individual band members were not allowed to comment on each other’s role in the band (the drummer couldn’t criticize the lyrics, for example, and the singer couldn’t criticize the drumming), they now decide that anything goes and each member throws out ideas for song lyrics. Hammett offers “My life style determines my death style,” and everyone laughs at what sounds like an odd sentiment. But they listen as Hammett explains some of his Buddhist beliefs, and by the end of the movie we see Hetfield singing that exact line on stage as the camera cuts to Hammett in a pretty subtle edit.
The new album debuts at #1 on the charts when it’s released, and Ulrich argues that this proves you can make a harsh, aggressive album through a process that doesn’t involve constant conflict and anger. For a musical genre known for its cartoon-like masculine posturing, this is all pretty remarkable stuff. The movie’s not perfect – it presents an unrelentingly positive view of the band – but it’s definitely interesting, whether you’re a fan of heavy metal or not.