Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

dir: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
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There’s something simultaneously engaging and repellent about a documentary where three of the titans of metal, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett act like bitchy teenage girls. They might be squillionaires, their band could be the biggest metal band of all time, but they’re still incapable of speaking to each other like adults.

I guess they have no need to be adults anyway. When you’re that rich, who needs maturity or reasonableness to get along with other people? You can hire assistants to do everything you need, PR people to handle your fuckups and indiscretions, and psychiatrist super coaches to hand-hold you through every emotionally difficult moment.

Well, it becomes a problem when your band and your management are desperate for another trip to the money well for another hefty load of the cold, hard green. That desire to get paid ensures every step needs to be taken in order to guarantee the product is finally pumped out, even when that product should probably have never seen the light of day in the first place.

Originally commissioned by the band themselves, this doco was supposed to be the equivalent of a ‘making-of’ for the creation of their latest album, St Anger. They hired two documentary-makers famed both for the quality of their docos (the two Paradise Lost movies) and the crapness of their movie work (the same bastards unleashed Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows). Still, if anyone was going to make these three girly girls look like complex and interesting individuals, it was going to be them.

And what complex and interesting individuals they truly are not. Don’t get me wrong, this is an interesting doco, but none of the main people in it come out of it smelling like a rose.

Brought together to come up with their latest album, the band finds age-old problems between them coming to the fore yet again. This time, though, stuff's not going to heal over without a few breakages along the way.

Jason Newsted, who took over from Cliff Burton as the group’s bass player in 1986 after Burton’s untimely death, leaves the band, citing Hetfield’s need to be a domineering prick. It’s made fairly clear that the rest of the guys never liked him anyway.

That’s not to indicate that there’s that much love lost between the remaining guys either. Lars and James constantly butt heads against each other because they’re both egomaniacal control freaks, always wanting to tear the other down because of their own insecurities.

If it seems strange to be talking about the psychomalogical elements contained herein, the weird thing is just that: the majority of the flick is taken up with talk, lots of talk as they all talk about their feelings more than they talk about the music, seemingly. They even have a psychiatrist with them most of the time in the studio, who tries to act as some kind of mediator to help them out. When you find out that the crusty old guy a) gets paid $40,000 a month (the doco covers a few years), and that he starts to think of himself as a member, it shows you how absurd the whole situation is.

Inspired by the psychobabble of the age, the band members speak to each other like they’re Californian New Agers counselling each other after a car accident. It’s all “when you act like this it makes me feel like this” and “I’m feeling anxious, and afraid because your statement about my guitar playing makes me feel insecure.”

Look, I can’t stand Metallica: never bought a single album of theirs; never cared for their music at all, but even I expected more from these guys. I know they’re in their forties, but for crying out loud they sound like guests sitting on Oprah’s self-obsession-infected couch.

Every persnickety, annoying situation is made worse by the pettiest ways in which Lars and James especially interact with each other. I really have to wonder if these guys watched the flick before it came out, and whether they realised how badly they’d come off out of it. Lars is a passive aggressive arsehole, James is a narcissistic control freak, and both of them have egos large enough to require their own private jets. They do not come across as guys who have been friends for over twenty years: they come across as workmates forced to work with each other for a long time who have never liked each other at all.

Strange, strange guys. Lars as well comes across worse mostly because of the juxtaposition of two events documented in the film. During the making of both the doco and the album, Lars took on the file sharing service Napster, making statements to the media berating the people responsible for the service and for the people ‘stealing’ Metallica’s rightful profits by downloading their albums for free.

Lars, my heart weeps tears of black blood over your economic hardship. Soon after the doco concentrates on the preparations for an auction of Lars’s personal art collection, where he gets smashed on Cristal champagne at Sotheby’s as his Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jasper Johns paintings get sold for millions and millions of dollars. This kind of shameful shit makes the doco more revealing than the band realise.

Did they really not know how they’d come across? James leaves the preparations for the recording of the album to go into rehab for several months, and comes out of the experience with a snazzy haircut, funky pince-nez glasses and an even more mealy-mouthed and pathetic attitude than before. As a condition of his parole from drinking, he dictates that he can only work between the hours of noon and four in the afternoon. When the rest of the band and the management go along with it, he further dictates that when he’s not there, as in, when he leaves at four, the other band members and production staff shouldn’t be listening to recordings because it makes him feel like he’s not in control. He feels afraid, and he’s not ashamed to say so in front of the goddamn camera.

Kirk Hammett, who doesn’t seem prey to the same level of egocentricity, comes across as a weak personality who’s always been at the mercy of the other two maniacs

It makes you want to slap them in the face repeatedly. There’s something honest but self-indulgent about the whole escapade, which is why it proves so interesting. For a doco about the biggest metal band ever, 80 per cent of it is about the arguments and the crying like little girls with skinned knees, with little time spent on the process by which they come up with their songs.

That, too, is interesting, because often you see moments where one of the band has an argument with management or someone else and comes up with a phrase that ends up in the lyrics or as the chorus of a song. It’s interesting to watch the process, but it also indicates very strongly, at least to me, that these guys have got nothing interesting or new to contribute and are repeating the same crap they’ve always put out, and that they should have broken up a long time ago. They make mediocrity look very easy. The shmucks they inspire who will think “well, I guess it’s not too hard if those shmucks can do it.”

Towards the end of the album saga, the band decide to get a new bass player for all the touring requirements, and the search is pretty interesting. They eventually settle on Robert Trujillo, who looks like an idealised version of what the aging, balding members of Metallica wished they still looked like. Trujillo just seems to be in awe of the situation, and rightly so. It must be an incredible buzz to play with your musical heroes.

It’s easy for a non-fan like me to forget the sheer abundance of their fans and the magnitude of their impact on rock / metal music from the 80s onwards. Towards the end you are reminded of just how huge these guys were / are in their prime / decline, with footage of fans still going as berserk as they did twenty years ago.

Co-directors Berlinger and Sinofsky came to prominence with their excellent documentaries about the so-called West Memphis Three, three then teenagers convicted of crimes they might not have committed. The main evidence against them was their love of listening to bands like Metallica and wearing a lot of black. The Paradise Lost docos were superb examples of the format, and, like the best docos, provoke more questions than they answer. This doco has them dealing with substantially saner and many-toothed people, but is no less revealing and intimate, in strange ways. Their unprecedented level of access gets them in situations with the band that no obsequious puff piece promotion friendly doco would ever show.

The virtue of this excellent but not always enjoyable documentary is that it also highlights three other obvious points. People who’ve been working together as the Biggest Metal Band in the World ™ can grow to hate each other even more with the passage of time. Regular exposure to professional psychobabble: “what I’m hearing from you is…”, “when you say this it makes me feel…” can turn even the hardest rockers into simpering, weak-minded egotists.

The last point is that this band should clearly have broken up a long time ago. If watching this doco about the shenanigans surrounding the creation of the St Anger album doesn’t convince you, listening to the album surely would.

6 times that there’s a certain level of satisfaction gained by watching Lars scream ‘Fuck!’ into Hetfield’s face out of 10

“Searchin' for doughnuts, I'm searchin' for doughnuts.” – Lars, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.