The `Monster' that devoured head-banging Metallica

August 06, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

So you're not a metal head. And if you've heard of any metal band, then it's probably Metallica - the premier group of the genre, the only head-bangers to garner immense commercial success (90 million albums sold worldwide) and critical respect for expanding thrash with complex, innovative musicianship.

Over the years, these guys lived as hard as they rocked, earning the name "Alcoholica" along the way. And you've seen enough VH1: Behind the Music specials to know that, when the smoke clears, what's left is never pretty: overblown egos, various addictions, poorly received albums, creative emptiness.

After 20 years together, the dudes responsible for flipping metal - stretching it, elevating it to art - hit that proverbial bottom. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, an engrossing new documentary, chronicles the group's recovery period over three years as the members try to piece together what's left after years of creative tensions and bruised relationships.

You don't necessarily have to be a metal head to dig this film. At its heart, it's about three rich, spoiled men who just can't get along anymore. (Admit it: The problems of the rich, regardless of who it is, intrigue us all.)

Well, the sweeping popularity of so-called reality shows that trail dysfunctional rich folks (the Osbournes) or stupid celebrities (uh, Jessica Simpson?) confirms that we average Joes and Joannas get a kick out of watching these "privileged" people squirm and stumble.

As you take in all 139 minutes of Some Kind of Monster - the tantrums, the pouting, the emotional unraveling - your sad appetite for watching the rich fall apart is satisfied. Sort of. Toward the end of the film, though, you end up rooting for the fellas. Despite their self-absorption (hey, if for nearly 20 years people told you that your every stroke was genius, how would you act?), the guys of Metallica - singer-guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett - are likable. They're also brave for revealing so much: the bright and dark sides of the maddening chemistry that makes them such a tight unit.

The film begins with a flurry of interviews done during the promotional tour for St. Anger, the album Metallica worked on for nearly three years. When Hetfield is asked to describe in one word "the span of his career," he's stumped and looks as if he couldn't care less about finding one. At this point, the film cuts to the band's therapy sessions, led by "therapist/performance enhancement expert" Phil Towle, who's collecting $40,000 a month for his services.

The documentary mostly centers on the erratic recording sessions for St. Anger, which at several points looks as if it will never be completed. Early on, Hetfield enters rehab for alcoholism and other addictions. He's absent for more than a year, during which time the band members and management decide to pursue the project anyway. It is here where the film becomes a chunky stew of therapeutic expose (original guitarist Dave Mustaine, who was booted out by the group in '84, confronts co-founder Ulrich in a tense session) and pseudo-confessional performance (of the three, Ulrich is the most aware that cameras are rolling).

After Hetfield, Metallica's other founder, emerges from rehab, the St. Anger sessions move tentatively. As part of his recovery, he can work only four hours a day, and he insists that sessions cease after he leaves. This enrages Ulrich. Hammett, the self-proclaimed "ego-less" member, seems largely unfazed. All the while, Towle is there coaxing the men stuck in adolescence to "open up." It's not until the band starts looking for a bassist to replace the not-so-amicably departed Jason Newsted that the members begin to feel rejuvenated. When the muscled master bass player Robert Trujillo joins the fold, creative juices are replenished. Old wounds begin to heal.

Again, you don't have to be a Metallica junkie to get this film. We all have issues. But how many of us are brave enough to wrestle with them as cameras roll around the clock?

Metallica

Directed by Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger

Released by IFC Films

Unrated

Time 139 minutes

Sun Score ***

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