|Metallica - Some Kind of Monster|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Tuesday, 25 January 2005|
What the heck happened to Metallica? Although the scoreboard has them perched high atop the charts as the highest-selling heavy metal band of all time, seeing even just a few minutes of the band in the studio, it’s obvious that the creative juices are gone. In “Some Kind of Monster,” a shockingly imitative documentary by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, Metallica lets fans and critics into the studio, their homes, their personal lives and more during the span of several years that it took to record their latest album, titled St. Anger.
As a young kid learning guitar and drums, Metallica was amongst the elite bands that made me long to study them and learn their music. Lead singer and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield, with the help of drummer and outspoken band leader and drummer Lars Ulrich, would sit together in a dark room and churn out guitar riffs and lyrics that were fresh, haunting, powerful and sometimes a little evil. It was this raw energy and hunger for music that saw them become the most widely respected and commercially successful heavy metal band, even with extremely limited airplay on the radio and MTV. Today, it seems they can’t make an album without a coach in the studio to help them out.
To show how much the band has lost their sense of direction, just take a look at the scene where they are discussing in the studio whether or not they should have Kirk Hammett do guitar solos. In an attempt to go with the mainstream flow; Ulrich argues that guitar solos are over since bands aren’t doing them any more. This is coming from the man who used to worship at the shrine of British heavy metal bands and said he was always going to make the kind of music he wanted, fans and critics be damned. A few bazillion dollars later, faced with the pressure of making a “hit” album, he’s referring to what bands like Linkin Park and Korn are doing to make sure they stay within the framework of what is successfully selling albums.
I give the band credit for having the courage to show their true emotions and demonstrate that they are real people who have feelings, families, struggles and triumphs. Yes, the mighty James Hetfield takes his daughter to ballet practice. Ulrich reads stories to his young son. Nothing wrong with that. The embarrassing thing to me is watching how these astronomically rich and successful artists have gone from road warriors who loved music to bumbling fools who can’t get along in the studio. The wheels had fallen so far off the train that someone decided to call in a $40,000-a-month life coach named Phil Towle to help the band get along in the studio.
One of the most surprising guest stars in Some Kind of Monster is former Metallica lead guitarist Dave Mustaine. For those of you don’t know the name, Mustaine is the creative mastermind behind the successful metal band Megadeth, but he has always felt like he’s played second fiddle to his former band mates who woke him up one morning before the recording of their first album Kill ‘Em All and gave him the boot. Despite the good life for himself that he has made in Megadeth, Mustaine sitting face to face with Ulrich, explaining how there are people in the world who hate him just because he was kicked out of Metallica, is a powerful moment. Ulrich listens, but I never got the sense that he was really there to help heal any wounds. The amount of narcissism that emanates from Ulrich is sometimes unbelievable. He has always been the loudmouth of the band and when forced to sit down and listen to someone else’s feelings, his level of discomfort is obvious.
Seemingly the only grounded person in the band, besides newly-hired bassist Robert Trujillo, is Kirk Hammett. Hammett was Mustaine's replacement in the early ‘80s, but to fans as well as Ulrich and Hetfield, he might as well be a founding member. In the heat of the studio, Hammett cools down hotheaded Ulrich and Hetfield as much as, if not more than, life coach Phil Towle. Hammett is a quirky guy, more into monster movie posters and gothic decorations than having a family and the responsibilities that go with that. He does not have the same pressures of raising a family that Ulrich and Hetfield have, but he is able to step in and offer calming words in the middle of the crapstorm that is now Metallica.
Another thing that shocked me was the way in which former bassist Jason Newstead was treated by the band. He joined the group after original bassist Cliff Burton was tragically killed in a bus accident on an icy road and they did a good deal of hazing Newstead at the beginning. This was no surprise for a band that did quite a bit of partying. What was surprising was how Newstead feels that he was ultimately never really embraced by the band. When Newstead is interviewed, he makes it clear that he was never as accepted as he would have liked to have been. He also calls out the band for their lack of creative spark over the past few years and thinks it’s a complete joke that they needed to call in a shrink to help them get along in the studio. He mentions the controlling nature of Hetfield, who didn’t want Newstead to have any side projects. Newstead makes it clear that he is happy with his decision to quit Metallica to pursue his side project Echobrain.
Later in the documentary, while Hetfield is knee-deep in rehab for addiction to alcohol and other unnamed substances, Ulrich and Hammett head down to see Newstead’s band perform. They spend a little time razzing Newstead as they go to the gig, but along with the amount of negativity, there is a certain level of support there for Newstead. They want him to do well, but at the same time, they don’t want him to succeed. After the gig, Ulrich and Hammett hang out and go back stage to congratulate Newstead on a successful show. However, Newstead is nowhere to be found. Ulrich pouts to the camera that Newstead's band just had a great gig and Metallica is stalled out creatively in the studio and might fall apart completely.
The saddest aspect of watching Some Kind of Monster is seeing how the band has completely run out of steam when it comes to writing music. I lost interest in them when they came out with their ultra-successful, Bob Rock-produced “black” album. There were a few songs on that record I liked, but that disc propelled them from underground stars to worldwide stars. The albums moved further away from the progressive heavy metal that was technical yet aggressive and epic in nature to simpler, more blued-based straightforward rock music. With St. Anger, they made a ridiculous step to try to go back to their speed-metal roots, but the problem is they have been so far removed from this world that the results are laughable. Ulrich’s dad even commented on the crappiness of the music when he went into the studio to hear the record in progress. Ouch.
To see the band struggle with lyrics to the point where they have to resort to having everyone jot ideas down on sheets of paper, piecing the words together into ways that seem forced and completely without inspiration, is tragic. A metal band needing inspirational slogans pasted on the walls is really kind of pathetic. This is like watching Spinal Tap at the end of their career. However, this is a real band.
In the bonus features of the disc, there are so many outtakes, inevitable in the documentary format, that there is practically an entire second movie. A longer session with Mustaine is shown and, in the commentary tracks, we learn why certain scenes were edited down and others were not used at all. All told, there are over 10 hours of footage here, including the two-hours-plus documentary.
One has to wonder how much of Some Kind of Monster is the band being real and how much of it is playing to the camera. There is a lot of fighting, a lot of pouting (mostly by Ulrich) and plenty of yelling. Fans of the band will enjoy the voyeuristic look as much as former fans like myself, who have wondered what the band has been up to. I thought St. Anger was far and away the worst hard rock album of 2003 and seeing how it was pieced together in such a weird, haphazard way in the studio explains it all. For fans of the band who actually liked that album, this movie could be considered a triumph. Either way, it’s a compelling piece of filmmaking that you need to see if you care one way or another about Metallica.