Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Some Kind of Monster

Some Kind of Monster is one of my favorite documentaries of all time. That so many Metallica fans hate it, hate it, only cements its impact. It is one of the most viciously anti-romantic films ever made about a person or group considered heroes and legends by millions. Metallica has a reputation for being one of the hardest (and hardest partying) bands around, yet the movie shows essentially one long group therapy session, with a liberal dose of midlife crisis sprinkled in for spice. Anyone hoping to see "Alcoholica" destroying hotel rooms and using blocks of heroin as pillows found what may be the event horizon of metal, an inescapable force of gravity sucking in the last bit of fury from the '80s into the void.

Hammering home how much the band has changed, the film opens with the crushing news of Jason Newsted's departure from the band and, perhaps more devastatingly, the band convenes in a Ritz-Carlton to discuss the new album with a management-hired therapist leading the chat of the personal quibbles and hangups tearing at the band. The band wants their next album to sound like a return to raw, aggressive playing, a subtle outgrowth of their desire to prove to outraged fans that the Napster episode did not demonstrate the band fully abandoning their fiery side. If they can just make something to tap back into Kill 'Em All, all will be forgiven.

Yet the transparency of the act is astonishing. The band insists on not going to the same old studio and cranking out one of their increasingly standard, hard rock album, yet they end up going to the Presidio in San Francisco, the idyllic setting wholly at odds with the basement tapes feel they want to create. Then again, the setting is the least of worries, as the band soon collapses into inaction, bickering and tedious hand-wringing over which direction they should head toward to regain their spot at the top. The band is situated between two extremes: run back to the well and hope the fans disregard every slip-up (which is a safe bet in the world of metal), or try to stay "current" and cater to the then-explosive nü-metal fad. Anyone who has listened to St. Anger knows which decision won out.

Some Kind of Monster does not quite fit into the Spinal Tap mode that has become expected of any profile of a hard rocking outfit, but it contains its own set of cringe-inducing dark humor. James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich argue like an old married couple, and poor Kirk Hammet sits between them always trying to diffuse the situation, the young child who just wants to get through one dinner, just one, without mommy and daddy going at it. James has become so used to getting his way as the frontman of Metallica that his life spirals out of control: he up and goes to Russia on a hunting trip and misses his son's first birthday. The producer, Bob Rock, looks as if he wants to quit at every second to go make the same money without all the hassle elsewhere. Family commitments become horrid reminders of how much these men have mellowed, and even their hobbies (Kirk's surfing, James' vehicle collecting, Lars' land-buying) come off as the sort of things middle-aged men do to feel cool.

And then there's the therapy itself. The "therapist" (actually a "performance-enhancing coach," a terminology that recalls steroid use, which might explain the scrotum-tightening rage he produces whenever on-screen) is a complete charlatan. Armed with a collection of shirts he rescued from a burning souvenir shop in Disney's Polynesian Resort, Towle is a huckster, not seeking to help the band so much as manipulating their stress to ingratiate himself among them and reap the benefits. One look at this asshole and you just know that, had someone documented the band during their '80s heyday, he'd have been one of the faux-psychologists on Oprah or Donahue talking about how this music was polluting young minds and that the answers for how to protect the children could be found in this book he's conveniently written. At one point, he actually suggests lyrics to the band members. Never mind that the final lyrics of St. Anger sounds as if the band cribbed them from freshman-year diaries littered with doodles of the English teacher being decapitated by a dragon summoned by Ronnie James Dio; this is such a massive breach of ethics, morality and, frankly, sanity that someone should have pushed him out immediately.

Yet, in a strange way, Towle largely succeeds in reuniting them, precisely because they all rally around hating him. As the band becomes aware of Towle's BS, they grow resentful of his presence, and one of the funniest moments of the film comes when James says, without a trace of irony, “I think Phil is under the impression that he's actually in the band.” Maybe that's Phil's ingenious plan: be so cloying and ridiculous that people at each other's throats dispel their anger at the third party, but considering how incompetent and useless he is as he dispenses trite advice, I'm disinclined to believe that theory.

More than fictive films, documentaries tend to be memorable through individual moments over the overall story (though that's important too, of course), and Some Kind of Monster has moments to spare. After the Napster fallout, the band is wary of anything that might make them look like sellouts, but the label strikes a deal with radio companies to have the band record promos for some asinine contest. However, this cynical marketing helps the band, as they push the image of their lavish homes and huge tracts of land out of mind to sarcastically ruin each take, tapping into their goofy younger mood and making them a group of kids again instead of 40-somethings mired in arguments. Then there's Lars' dad, an amazing old man with a beard down to his navel and the direct tone of English spoken through a Dutch accent. Torben is so deadpan it hurts, and when Lars lets him listen to what the band has put together so far, his pacing suggests he's more terrified of what Torben will say than anyone. As the rambling warble comes to a close, Torben strokes his beard and solemnly intones, "DELETE THAT." Torben! The best. Just the way he says it, like the proclamation of a Norse god through the calm, detached avatar of Werner Herzog, is so devastating and funny. If a storm ever manages to breach the Dutch levee system, it must be retroactively named Hurricane Torben.

As James and Lars tear at each other, the others begin to show the strain of dealing with this for years. Long-suffering Kirk patiently deals with the bickering, but when Hetfield and Ulrich decide to leave solos off the album in a transparent attempt to fight back into the mainstream trends of the day, Kirk can stay silent no more. He accurately claims that leaving off solos does not prevent dating the record to the past: it only cements the band in an ephemeral present. When the filmmakers interview Jason, his measured, relieved tone cannot disguise the lingering resentment for not being accepted as a true member of the band.

Neither can compare, however, to Dave Mustaine, that tragic figure. Twenty years on from being ejected from Metallica just prior to the band recording their first album for substance abuse, Mustaine still cannot see the impressive career he carved outside the group. Sitting down with Lars while James is away in rehab, Mustaine makes painfully clear why he cannot let it go. It is not simply a matter of being angry for being fired. Dave then spent the next 20 years watching Metallica conquer the world while Megadeth, celebrated as they were (and are, far more consistently these days than 'Tallica), always played second fiddle. Sheila O'Malley calls him Shakespearean, and that's an apt description. He actually refers to himself as a failure, though thousands would call him a legend, all because he missed his shot to make it with his friends, who became his bitterest foes (the feud continued for years after this movie and was, in fact, prolonged in part because of it, though all now seems to be well at last). I am never emotionally prepared for the moment where Mustaine quietly says he misses "my Danish friend."

The greatest aspect of documentaries and reality television is the manner in which directors and editors must make drama out of spontaneity. Even if reality TV is scripted or a documentary subject is playing to the camera, there is still a degree of the unknown far greater than that of a regular film. For example, I believe the editing on Jersey Shore is something of a masterpiece, a series of consistently hilarious juxtapositions that know exactly the right facial expression to use in a reaction shot and how to make the inherent, sleazy absurdity of the program all the wilder. The filmmakers here achieve a similar degree of inventive comedy, finding just the right shot or quote to puncture the ballooning self-loathing and let the bilious self-awareness spill out.

Without question, the funniest of these examples comes when Robert Trujillo attends his first meeting as a member of Metallica. Trujillo, the clear front-runner among some massively talented competition (I was particularly surprised/pleased to see Scott Reeder, one of the most underrated bassists working, trying out), is ecstatic. The band briefly discussed looking for someone their age, and though Trujillo technically fits that criterion, his youthful vivacity is a blast of fresh air in the jaded airing of grievances seen throughout. If someone had pulled him aside during the audition and asked how badly he wanted the gig, he'd almost certainly have said he was just glad to be in the same room as these guys, and he'd be totally sincere.

Which is why it is so achingly funny when he gets the gig and shows up to a meeting. I was talking on Twitter about the movie with Sheila, who is also a fan of the film, and we both laughed over this scene. Trujillo is overwhelmed: not only is he joining one of the bands that set the standard in his youth, that band also goes by the nickname Alcoholica. God knows what he's fantasizing about when he walks in that room. (My personal belief, as I related to Sheila, is that somewhere in his head he was strapping on skis to slalom around hookers down a mountain of blow.) He has it MADE. And then, James Hetfield starts pouring out his soul. He comes to the point of tears as he talks about how much he doesn't want to face the idea of working without his friends. And the cameraman, that blessed, ingenious cameraman, just moves onto a shot of Trujillo not making a sound. He thought he was going to be in one of the baddest bands of all time, and he showed up for some form of platonic marriage counseling. I have laughed harder and more consistently at that one shot than the totality of nearly every comedy I've seen in the last decade. It is perfect.

Complete with well-assembled archived footage -- just compare those dorky, teenage versions of James and Lars headbanging at Lars' house with the multimillionaires of the present -- and excellently shot concert footage, Some Kind of Monster does not seek to undermine the image of a legendary band but honestly deals with issues most headbangers would prefer not to confront. The first few times I watched the film, I cringed whenever James or Lars' children would come to the studio, because they just deflated the men, who stopped screaming and thrashing to listen patiently to toddler speak and make their own noises for the kids' amusement. Only recently did it even occur to me what a horrible reaction this was: why was I so angry at children for, basically, existing? They represent the band getting older and having to shift their lives. We all have to do it, and so do artists. While Ulrich may have a huge collection of art he can sell on a whim for millions of dollars with which to buy other works of art or Kirk can get himself a nice ranch, their mellower attitude does not mean they've sold out. We all like adults who are big kids, but everyone has to act like an adult at some point.

Near the end of the film, Metallica plays a gig at San Quentin, and Hetfield gives a brief speech to the inmates. "There's a lot of misspent anger that has come out sideways for a lot of people. Including yourselves. And if I hadn't had music in my life, it's quite possible I could be in here, or not even in here, be dead. And I'd much rather be alive." He doesn't chastise them, doesn't preach. Most importantly, he recognizes that any of them are harder than he or Metallica could ever be, so he just gets something off his chest and gets back to entertaining, and the crowd eats it up.

By the time Some Kind of Monster comes to a close, you'll be hard-pressed to look upon the quartet as bad-ass partiers ever again. Yet the band does not completely tarnish themselves with the level of access they allowed the filmmakers. Whatever happens behind the scenes, hell, whatever happens on each new record (at the time, new Metallica generally brought only more grumbling, an issue not rectified until Death Magnetic), none of it matters on the stage. Even now, when Metallica takes the stage, they give a goddamn show, and by ending on a concert, Some Kind of Monster reminds the audience why they fell in love with Metallica in the first place, and why no personal action by one or some of the band members can ever stop a tour from selling out. These guys have to play, and when they get on-stage, they only have time for the performance, not for the baggage. That they can still mop the floor with lesser bands shows that nothing can ultimately keep these guys down.


  1. Never been a huge Metallica fan, but this has been on my queue for a tragically long time now. Really good review, man. About time I just bumped this to the top already.

  2. God, this was great. I love them, I love this movie, and I love your thoughts on it. The Trujillo moment is BRILLIANT and Lars' father is unforgettable. Dave Mustaine broke my heart. I remember Kim Morgan and I babbling about how we wanted to save him, rescue him, let him know IT WAS OKAY. That "Danish friend" line is full of heart - and you can see it land on Lars' inscrutable little face. So much to say. I think the therapist, while, yes, ridiculous (HIS SWEATERS) - served a purpose. The group bonded, they talked shit out, and then - they bonded so much that they had to shut him out. Any really good therapist knows he has been a success when the client decides to move on. The moment with him passing the lyrics to Hetfield makes me cringe.

    Kirk is awesome. He's this little Zen buddha in the middle of everything, and I appreciated his input about the guitar solos. I love anything that has to do with PROCESS and this is one of the best PROCESS-oriented movies I've ever seen and I am so glad it exists.

    I've been a Metallica fan since I was 14 years old. I'll go with them wherever they want me to go. I'm one of those weirdos who loves LOAD. They are not perfect, but they are artists. They are at the top, untouchable, and to see them grapple it out - to see the work that goes into maintaining this BRAND ... is really something else.

    Thank you so much for your review. I really enjoyed talking with you on Twitter about it, and also reading your thoughts.

    Gonna go play their double album now that they made with the San Francisco Orchestra. That one's my favorite.

  3. I sadly lost their live albums through a careless iTunes purge (I already have 20 gigs more than my 80 gig can hold and do a massive wipe every so often). I have the albums back at my parents' place but need to go home first. I love Michael Kamen: he had solid film scores and his compositions for metal bands were amazing. Have you heard Operation Mindcrime? That's my favorite of his input, with S&M in a close second. I remember some show ranking S&M as some nadir for heavy metal and I just thought, "God, shut up, VH1."

    That therapist continues to confuse me. Like I said, he ends up being so effective that I wonder if he's engaging in some weird performance art to bring the guys together. At the same time, there's a reason he had to turn in his license and invent a term for himself.

    I'm so glad Mustaine finally seems to be over it. I've been a Megadeth fan as long as I have a Metallica fan, and I think he's been a lot more solid recently than 'Tallica (granted, he's been more prolific and Metallica only had two albums last decade, one damn good, the other TERRIBLE). The Big Four touring is just such a great catharsis, especially considering Slayer has duked it out with both Megadeth and Metallica over the years (though I can only take Slayer in bursts).

    I totally agree about the process. I love how it always makes time to see how things get shaped and discarded. I'm amazed Metallica let this be shown, but I'm so glad they did. The simpler metalheads consider it a sellout, but I think it really shows them at their most honest, even if that's anything but flattering.