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Monsters of Metal

July 10, 2006

The tagline for Some Kind of Monster is “The film that redefines group therapy.” It’s a play on the word group–rock group, get it?–but the emphasis should be on “redefines.” In the band gripe sessions that form the heart of this Metallica documentary, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and longtime producer Bob Rock are practically non-entities. All the dysfunction stems from the relationship between frontman James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, the co-founders of the band. It’s couples therapy masquerading as group treatment.

And this couple certainly needs help. According to Ulrich, things between him and Hetfield haven’t been the same since Dave Mustaine joined the band–in 1981. Most couples wouldn’t have suffered through 21 years of pain and miscommunication, but then again, most couples don’t have the complementary talents to make the best metal music the world has ever known.

When we first meet Metallica in Some Kind of Monster, bassist Jason Newsted has just left the band after 16 years and the group has hired Phil Knowles, a counselor to professional sports teams, to help the members work out their problems. At first, Ulrich seems to be the primary instigator for Knowles’ weekly therapy sessions. A notorious blabbermouth, he revels in the chance to hear himself talk. Hetfield, who’s earned equal infamy as a disgruntled badass, seems uncomfortable with such emotional openness. But everything changes when Hetfield abruptly leaves for rehab for his alcohol abuse.

His absence sends the band deeper into a shit spiral; Bob Rock, who appeared to be Hetfield’s biggest supporter, quietly seethes when Hammett relates how Hetfield told him he wanted to escape from the “Bob Rocks” of the world. Ulrich, meanwhile, bathes in self-pity as he watches Newsted’s new band make its debut at a San Francisco club.

When the band gets back together almost a year later, it is Hetfield who now craves catharsis. He variously refers to Knowles as “an angel” and “father figure.”

Ulrich, however, rankles at the way Hetfield has forced Metallica into an involuntary hiatus in the middle of recording a new album. After returning from rehab, Hetfield implements a non-negotiable rule that he can only record from noon to 4 p.m. each day, with the rest of his time dedicated to his family; he even has the balls to bitch at the other members for working on the album after 4 p.m. Like most recovering addicts–and all rock stars–Hetfield assumes what’s good for him is good for all; he rationalizes his divaishness by saying that limiting the band to four hours a day will cut out the bullshit and focus everyone on their work.

As a Metallica fan, I have to admit, I’ve always found Ulrich to be a bit of a pretentious blowhard. The doc does nothing to alter that perception, but at least we learn his pretension isn’t an act–he’s truly an aesthetic perfectionist, obsessed with not repeating himself, consumed with crafting the perfect song. You get the sense he’d go insane if he had to give up his drumset. And we learn his drive comes from his father, a little Danish man with a long white beard and flatcap who’s like a cross between an adorable gnome and an evil wizard. Papa Ulrich is a relentless critic and perfectionist, and Lars admits he dreads playing a new album for his father because he knows “he’ll see right through” its weaknesses.

Hetfield, on the other hand, has always seemed the most legitimately badass member of the band, and the movie does little to alter that image either. But hardcore plays a lot better in soundbites and song lyrics than it does in a documentary; over the course of Some Kind of Monster, his bullying behavior and grumpy self-absorption wore awfully thin. I know that you can’t be a true rock star if you haven’t halted your social and emotional development at adolescence, but post-rehab, Hetfield is more like a toddler than a teenager.

Between these two dominating personalities, there is little space for Hammett, which is just the way he likes it. He acknowledges his role as a peacemaker and says he wants to serve as “an example of egolessness” to the other guys. He’s an absolutely fascinating personality–is there any other rock star who takes pride in his ability to make himself “small”?

Despite following a typical rock n’ roll story arc of rancor, rehab and redemption, Some Kind of Monster is no Behind the Music. Because the nature of therapy is to open up old wounds–like the departure of Mustaine in 1983 and the death of original bassist Cliff Burton in 1986–directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky can tell the history of the band without resorting to the stock doc device of omniscient narration. Further, there are almost no talking head moments in the movie; the members of the band don’t have to explain their feelings to the camera because they’re explaining their feelings to each other on a weekly basis. This allows the story to flow organically, and also creates the illusion that Some Kind of Monster is an utterly objective portrait of the band. (Ideologically I have my issues with that, but I can’t deny its persuasive power.)

There are also some great moments that have nothing to do with therapy. When Ulrich argues that the band should get away from extended solos because they’re “stock,” Hammett makes the insightful point that not having extended solos is as much a cliché of modern rock as having solos was a cliché of classic rock. We also learn a bit about the big business of being Metallica. After deciding on Robert Trujillo Jr. (formerly of Corrosion of Conformity) as their new bassist, they sit him down and offer him a million dollars as a good will gesture. Later, a guy from their management company explains that as far as creative decisions go, he gets five voting shares and each of the other three members get 32, with the management company casting a vote in case of a tie (and yes, that does add up to 102 voting shares).

Things get really interesting towards the end of the movie, as the band wraps up the album St. Anger and prepares to go on tour. After nearly two years of continuous therapy, the band tells Knowles they’d like to ramp down the therapy. But Knowles–who’s making $40,000 a month for his work–pooh-poohs the idea. Between his suggestions of song lyrics and his whispers of possibly moving to the band’s hometown of San Francisco, Knowles starts seeming less interested in helping the band overcome its problems and more interested in keeping his gravy train afloat. Hetfield’s “angel” just may be the devil in disguise.

The ending, unfortunately, leaves a few too many loose ends. We never learn if the band was able to rid itself of Knowles. And the final montage of scenes from their 2003 world tour is as deceptive as it is clichéd; the band wants to seduce us into thinking that a little bit of world traveling and fan adulation will cure years of dysfunction and destructiveness. Moreover, it may have been easy for Hetfield to stay off the booze in San Fran, where he could go home to his family everyday–how’s he going to be on the road, when groupies are throwing coke and tits in his face?

But the greatest irony of Some Kind of Monster is that as much as therapy may have made Hetfield and Ulrich better people, it seems to have turned Metallica into a shittier band. Compromise and equality were the themes of the new Metallica when they recorded St. Anger, but the end result was some of their most forgettable music ever. Between turning Hetfield from a depressive drunk bully to the only thing worse, a depressive sober bully, and Knowles’ attempts to weasel his way into a lucrative co-dependency with the band, Some Kind of Monster does redefine group therapy. And the new definition is “really bad shit.”

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Brad Glaser permalink
    July 10, 2006 4:13 pm

    There is no doubt that “Some Kind of Monster” sounds fascinating, but as a long-time Metallica fan, I am not sure that I actually want to see it. They were heroes of my youth, my favorite band from when I really started discovering music of my own in about 5th grade through my junior year of high school. I worry that sometimes this kind of access to and information about idols, especially idols of youth, is more disillusioning than it is enlightenening. It is not that I want to believe them perfect (one only need listen to “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” to know they’ve had their struggles;) it is more that I do not want to see them as being petty. Now, of course, having read 25 different articles and reviews about the movie, I have a good idea of the content, but there is something even more jarring about seeing it in living color. On this one, I’ll settle for blissful semi-ignorance for now. (Of course, if “Some Kind of Monster” pops up on Stars West at 2 am some sleepless night, I’m sure I’ll cave in and watch. So much for strong stands.)

  2. bro permalink
    July 10, 2006 8:25 pm

    i have to agree with brad here. although i’m more of a dilettante metallica fan (black album only, although i enjoy the occasional oldie on the radio), i dont feel the need to know more about their group dynamics. as someone once said, most art is like a sausage, you’re better off not knowing what went into producing it

  3. Brad Glaser permalink
    July 10, 2006 11:28 pm

    Didn’t they say that about laws, as well? Maybe we’re just better off with blinders, in general.

  4. July 11, 2006 4:05 am

    I have to disagree with you sausage-haters. There have been a number of fascinating movies about the creation of art, both fictional and documentary. To name a few: Hearts of Darkness, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Adaptation, Walk the Line, Pollock.

    And one of the best TV shows ever was about the making of laws: The West Wing.

    One wonders, in fact, why no one’s ever made a movie about making sausage. I’d really like to know how much pig ass and rat face are in every Fenway frank.

  5. July 11, 2006 4:06 am

    Make that rat feces.

  6. Brad Glaser permalink
    July 11, 2006 6:08 am

    I was actually being facetious. Many of my favorite works are about the creation of art, including Crumb. It’s just my particular idolatry of Metallica that makes me squeamish in this case.

    On a related note, I’m currently reading “The Monsters,” a pretty fascinating account of the events that led to the writing of “Frankenstein” and one of the first vampire novels, including alot of good background info on Percey Shelley, Mary Shelly (as well her parents) and Lord Byron. In a similar vein, “Madame X” tells the fascinating story of John Singer Sargent’s painting of the same name. I recommend both heartily.

    Mmmm, sausage.

  7. bro permalink
    July 11, 2006 9:00 pm

    while brad is right about the original quote concerning laws, not art, i think you’re both wrong concerning art about art. while most of the works you guys mention are quite good, their strongest attributes are not necessarily in the way that they portray the creation of art, e.g.
    crumb- the eccentricitis of crumb and particularly his brother
    kid stays in the picture- evans’ inside hollywood stories
    walk the line- the performances and interplay between johnny and his wife
    hearts of darkness- the emotional and physical breakdowns of cast and director
    pollock- i must have missed the strong attributes of this one
    adaptation is probably the best “process” movie of your examples, but it’s so meta that its hard to know if your enjoyment is derived from watching the process, or from watching the end result of the process at the same time

  8. Brad Glaser permalink
    July 11, 2006 9:36 pm

    Damn, bro, you have a good point here. I’m now trying to think of films that are more truly proccess works that worked. “Bring on the Night,” about the making of Sting’s first solo album, wasn’t bad, but I’d hardly call it great. “Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n Roll” was fun but hardly enlightening. The 1953 “Moulin Rouge” about Toulouse-Lautrec is pretty damned good, especially in the way the cinematography is drawn from his art. The scenes in “Amadeus” that deal with Mozart’s composition are intense, but it’s hardly the film’s focus. Anbody got any more that might fit this bill?

  9. July 11, 2006 10:10 pm

    Bro, you’re dead-on about the virtues of those movies, but I think you’re missing the point. In many of those movies those qualities you mention were essential parts of the creative process, or of the personality formation of an artistic genius.

    Take Hearts of Darkness, for example; Apocalypse Now wouldn’t be the same movie without all the disasters and mishaps that happened on set (it wouldn’t have starred Martin Sheen, for one). And if Dennis Hopper wasn’t all bugged out on acid and Marlon Brando wasn’t dabbling in mental illness, the movie wouldn’t have had that memorable/terrible ending. (Besides one of the most interesting and striking facts that comes out in Hearts of Darkness is that Coppola wrote the script as he made the movie. If that’s not a window into the pure creative process, I don’t know what is.)

    Even if I were to buy your argument, it wouldn’t be a persuasive reason not to see Some Kind of Monster. The most interesting stuff in Some Kind of Monster, as I note in my review, is the interpersonal dynamics between Ulrich and Hetfield. Some of that has very little to do with the creation of the music, but I think it’s particularly fascinating to see the way those interpersonal dynamics affect, and have affected, the creation of their music. For example, before their more recent warm, fuzzy period, the members of the band were so hostile and sensitive about their work that there was an agreement that nobody could criticize another’s work, and everyone would do their thing and they would just figure out how to put it together in post-production. Much like sausage-making, they turned a whole bunch of (emotional) shit into something quite tasty.

    As for Adaptation, I can only attest to what still lingers with me several years after seeing the movie. I can’t for the life of me tell you what the plot was, but I distinctly remember its portrait of the pain of writer’s block, and the envy and anger that a frustrated writer feels when someone else of lesser talent knocks out successful product. Granted, I’m a writer and occasional aspiring screenwriter, so I make no claim that mine was a universal reaction.

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