OCTOBER 21, 2008
Like a lot of folks, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Metallica’s "St. Anger" album. I liked it better than Load/Re-Load, but after 2-3 listens it was placed on the shelf and more or less forgotten until June of 2004, when the film Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster was shown at the Boston Film Festival. I was interested in seeing the film, not because I am a die hard fan of the band (to this day I haven’t heard any of their albums pre “And Justice For All”), but because it was directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, my personal favorite documentarians thanks to their Paradise Lost films, as well as Brother’s Keeper. Hell, I’m even among the few who will defend Berlinger’s Blair Witch sequel (a club Berlinger himself does not even belong). Not having a ticket, I had to wait in the standby line for about 2 hours just to HOPE to get in, and if memory serves I was one of if not THE last person they managed to find a seat for, and turned a bunch of folks away.
And even though I was in the front row of a very uncomfortable theater (a relic in the middle of Somerville, the next 2.5 hours was bliss. I was engaged by every second of the film, in a manner I’ve rarely experienced since. There’s a part in the film where James Hetfield returns from rehab, and I was like “aw, now they’ll record the album without a hitch and the movie will be over”, but a quick check of my watch revealed that it wasn’t even the halfway point. At nearly 150 minutes, the movie never once drags or even feels long, and when the REAL ending was obviously approaching, I felt bummed. I could literally watch the film all day long.
There’s just something completely enrapturing about watching these guys struggle to record an album. Kirk Hammett and Bob Rock become spectators after awhile as we see Hetfield and Lars Ulrich constantly get on each other’s nerves; displaying some of the finest passive aggressive behavior I have ever seen (real or scripted). If anything, James’ stint in rehab makes the situation worse; they really only fight once before the fact (that we see anyway), but afterwards it’s as if they can’t even record a riff without going at it.
But I think what makes it so compelling is that it’s not a bunch of yelling and throwing and punching. They fight, for lack of a better word, intelligently for the most part. A lot of that, I’m sure, is due to the fact that they have a therapist with them almost every day. He’s this guy named Phil (who oddly looks a lot like Chevy Chase does now, with his balding, liver spotted head and giant glasses), and he becomes so entwined with the band that at one point he even offers lyric suggestions. Some (particularly hardcore metalheads) might balk at these “gods” being such pussies by discussing their feelings, but I find it fascinating.
Maybe it’s BECAUSE I don’t worship these guys that I don’t have any problem with seeing their vulnerable side. Meat Loaf attempted his own version recently, with a film called In Search Of Paradise, and it was just kind of annoying to me, because I knew more than the film was actually offering. On the flipside, I also watched I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, about Wilco’s struggle to record an album of their own, and since I’m almost completely unfamiliar with their work, I wasn’t engaged by much of what was on screen. With Metallica, I think I had just enough appreciation to enjoy the occasional joke (Kirk’s response to James feeling like he has no say in how songs are recorded is priceless), but not so much that I was becoming in any way disillusioned to discover that millionaire rock stars are people too.
But besides all that, it’s just a fascinating documentary. The guys were hired to film material for a 20 minute promotional video (the guys had a working relationship with the band due to Paradise Lost; the only film in history that Metallica allowed their songs to be used on the soundtrack), but the inner turmoil and turn of events resulted in them being on the project for about two years. At one point, they even discuss the future of the documentary, IN the documentary (this scene once included a bit where the band watches what has been cut together so far, but that was excised for being a bit too meta – it’s on the DVD though).
Also, unlike their other films, it actually has a Hollywood-esque structure, complete with triumphant ending. If one considers James the main character, he falls, then struggles to rebuild, and finally regains his position as the leader of the “biggest heavy band of all time” (ex-member Jason Newsted’s words, which are mocked by Lars on the commentary) by playing a show in front of a sold out crowd (apart from the occasional archive footage, the band is never seen playing for a paying audience until the film’s conclusion). And it’s all in those little moments with Lars that sell his transformation. There’s a scene where James wants to let the therapist go, and when the guy begins to protest, Lars, who has spent the entire film ignoring or rebelling against James’ wishes, almost instantly joins his side in telling the therapist to sod off. It’s a fantastic moment. And even before then, hell, even before rehab, you see these little throwaway moments (the two of them air drumming a beat they are working on, Lars’ kid interacting with James) that show that at the end of the day, these guys are brothers. Even if you don’t even know which one is the singer and which is the drummer, you will want to see them repair their relationship by the end, just like any good movie.
One thing the movie doesn’t quite do so well is handle the Napster stuff. Fans know all about it, but non-fans probably don’t have a clue why it would be important to mention at all. In short, in the summer of 2000, the band (mostly Lars) filed a lawsuit against Napster after discovering, well, IT. They didn’t know anything about the program, and then one day they found out all of their music was available through it. Like I said earlier in this review, they are protective of their work to the extent of not even allowing it to be used in a movie. For the longest time (and maybe even still today, not sure) they wouldn’t license their albums to Columbia House or BMG either. And yet, people like to accuse them of simply being moneygrubbing assholes. Uh, no. You get paid (quite nicely) for these services, and that’s for music that they’ve already recorded, so it would be money for nothing. And a fact that often gets ignored (perhaps purposely), what initially set them off wasn’t that someone could downloaded "Load" for free, but that people were sharing (and judging) a song that they hadn’t even finished yet! The fact is, Napster was a way for people to obtain their music (in substandard quality to boot) through means that they didn’t agree to. It’s no different than a filmmaker not wanting a truncated version of his film to be shown on an airline or whatever. Anyway – the movie just still sort of makes them seem like assholes on the subject, and Lars never really gets to defend his actions. In the commentary they basically say “well we didn’t want to ignore it”, but at the same time, an amazing opportunity to set the record straight is basically wasted.
The only other aspect that I would have really liked to have seen explored is Bob Rock’s take on things. He was the album’s producer, but he was also filling in on bass until a replacement was found. He had to have been feeling like he was part of the band at some point (the album took over a year of recording sessions!), but at the same time he had a producing career to think about (it was during this time that he produced Tonic’s amazing album "Head On Straight"). But other than the occasional comment, he’s kind of a non-factor in the movie once James returns. However, other “band history” things, such as Cliff’s death, Jason’s departure, and Dave Mustaine are handled perfectly. The Mustaine scene in particular is amazing, as Dave reveals that despite all of Megadeth’s success, he still feels like a loser for being kicked out of Metallica, 20 years before.
I also want to point out two minor things that tickle me. First, when Lars has blond hair, he looks exactly like Tom Sizemore. And second, in their break room there is a Deliverance poster, except the E is missing ("Delivrance"). It’s really odd – no one noticed that on the Warner marketing team? I bet Burt Reynolds kicked someone’s ass over that.
The DVD was so packed that I took the day out of work to watch it all when it came out back in 2005. Two commentaries (one by the band, other by Berlinger/Sinofsky) that are both worth listening to, a whole bunch of little bits about the film playing at festivals, additional “post film” interviews, a video, and the trailer would have been enough. But also, there are FORTY deleted scenes, which run close to two hours combined (many with commentary by Joe and Bruce), and I’d say about 75% of them are just as interesting as anything in the finished film. And if you love the movie as much as I do, you’ll want to buy Berlinger’s book about its production, which fleshes out a lot of stuff, contains his thoughts on the Blair Witch debacle, and more. I devoured the book in two sittings; I really wish that the DVD company had partnered with the publishing company to make a sort of deluxe set with the film, book, and of course, the "St. Anger" CD.
And back to the CD – the best thing about this film (and book, to a smaller extent) is that it can actually give you a new impression of the CD. I now have listened to it more than any other Metallica album, and while I still don’t love every song (like all of their albums, it’s about 20 min or 3 songs too long), it’s just incredible to listen to these finished songs after hearing (and seeing) how they were developed (oh yeah – the movie is not all fighting and therapy, there’s actually quite a bit of lyric writing and recording session footage). For example, the song “Sweet Amber” was born out of an incident in the film when the band was being forced to record some radio promos. They are told that if they don’t do it, the radio stations from that company (Clear Channel, I assume) wouldn’t play their singles when the album was released, to which James responds (in anger, to their manager) “So... what; wash their back so they don’t stab mine?”. So now when I hear the song, I think about that scene, which is a pretty great one in the context of the film anyway, and it just becomes a richer experience. At least for me.
Sorry that this review is like 395 pages long. I really like the movie is all.
What say you?