'Metallica': Heavy and Human
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2004; Page WE33
WE'VE SEEN the real story about heavy metal in "Spinal Tap," right? We've cross-referenced that with Ozzy Osbourne's home life in "The Osbournes." We've seen those candid "Behind the Music" glimpses of rock-star life on VH1. Is there anything about "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" we can look forward to?
Yes. All of it. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's documentary about rock history's biggest heavy metal band is -- variously -- serious, funny, frustrating and touching. It finds an intriguing niche between docu-poignancy and passing camp, as it takes you behind closed doors at San Francisco's Presidio. Intended as a private location to record their latest album, the Presidio becomes an encounter zone where Messrs. James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett -- Metallica's core unit -- earnestly discuss their creative differences, personality quirks and the elephant-size matter of Hetfield's sobriety.
At the hub of these conversations is Phil Towle, a psychobabbular "performance enhancement coach," who is being paid $40,000 a month to help these hairy rock gods kiss and make up, then get back to the thing they do best: composing two-chord and three-chord songs about anxiety, depression, anger, back-stabbing and other pressing matters. We also see them in the studio, co-creating and performing songs and verbalizing with increasing candor their dissatisfactions with one another.
To paraphrase Mick Jagger from "Gimme Shelter," what are they fighting for? Well, you name it. Drummer Ulrich, for instance, takes exception to the word Hetfield chooses ("solid") when he asks him to play differently. They get into a big discussion about Hetfield's dismissive use of the adjective "stock." Hammett, seemingly the most genial and peacemaking of the trio, suffers mostly in the background, watching his collaborators trading subtle barbs.
But the big kahuna is when Hetfield announces he intends to interrupt the band's album recordings so he can assume control of his alcohol dependency and his life.
Their creative life grinds to a halt. Hetfield's absence goes from weeks to months, as Ulrich, Hammett and producer Bob Rock continue their discussions with Towle, one another and the filmmakers. A year or so later, Hetfield reemerges. An apparently changed man, he insists the band recording sessions last daily from noon till 4 for the sake of his new life. He then returns to his family until the next day. During this time, he insists, the band should not participate in listening to songs, composing or recording without him.
"This is a [expletive] rock 'n' roll band," Ulrich protests. "I don't want rules."
Berlinger and Sinofsky, who also made the outstanding "Brother's Keeper," follow a story line that takes place between early 2001 (the Presidio sessions) and late 2003, when the band finally releases its album "St. Anger." In addition to the band's Towle-hosted sessions and their in-studio interactions, there are many entrancing chapters: teary encounters with former Metallica members Dave Mustaine (founder of rival band Megadeth) and bass player Jason Newsted, whose emotional exit after 14 years with the band got the Presidio sessions off to a shaky start; the band's interviews with rock journalists (whose questions can be hilariously banal and stupid); and the search for a new bass player, which eventually ends with the fabulously nimble Robert Trujillo. The movie's full of fascinating characters, especially Ulrich's father, Torben, a long-bearded and ponytailed Scandinavian given to critically lambasting his son's music, who clearly missed his calling as a character in "The Lord of the Rings." But the most compelling, by far, is Hetfield, whose attempted recovery is made almost adorable by his bespectacled earnestness and post-recovery-speak phrases. Can he live a life that includes watching his daughter perform ballet routines and jack-hammering power chords for adoring fans?
It's a fascinating challenge. You feel yourself rooting for him with surprising vigor.
Documentaries have to ape a dramatic story, create a sense that things are heading toward some kind of resolution. So even though we see the band seemingly headed toward a new chapter, we surely know that life continues a day at a time, particularly if you are a member of Metallica and you're given to taking umbrage at the word "solid." But what emerges for the audience is a newfound empathy for these guys, not longhaired cliches but real people who feel things, make very human mistakes and believe in their music.
METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (R, 140 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, momentary nudity, drug use and talk of substance abuse. Area theaters.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
James Hetfield in the documentary "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster."
(Annamaria Disanto -- Radical Media)