In the world of heavy rock music, there is one band that defines the genre more than any other. From their humble beginnings in the early 80s to the peak of their fame in the mid-90s, there is no denying the musical force that is Metallica. Formed by Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield in Los Angeles in 1981, the band – which gained popularity after a move to San Francisco – has become one of the biggest acts in rock history, releasing no fewer than five number one albums on the Billboard charts and have created some of the most memorable rock tracks of modern time. From the self-titled "Metallica" (nicknamed the anonymous "Black Album") to their 1999 release "S&M", the band has shown the ability to adapt to the ever-changing music scene with excellent results. Although they've had massive success, the band has also faced its share of problems, with original bassist Cliff Burton dying in a bus accident in 1986, the firing of Dave Mustaine who would go on to form Megadeth, and a battle with once-popular music downloading service Napster over an unfinished song which appeared on its servers. The latter incident led to a huge backlash from their fan base and very much put the future of the band's sales in jeopardy. Would fans be willing to put out money for a band that wouldn't allow them to download their music and caused the closing of the world's biggest music sharing service? In 2001, the band found themselves back in the studio (with producer Bob Rock) to record their first album in 5 years to contain newly written Metallica material. They had a deal with Elektra for a new disc and had agreed to let Paradise Lost filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky chronicle the making of the disc for a documentary to be used to promote the record. What would happen over the next 2 1/2 years would test the band's future.
Just as production on the record that would become "St. Anger" commences, long-time bass player Jason Newstead decides to leave the band citing creative differences as the reason for his departure. Seeing that relations between the band members are at an all-time low, management firm Q-Prime decides to bring in Phil Towle, a therapist/performance enhancement coach, to help the band work through their issues and deliver a solid record that will soar to the top of the charts. At first, his methods seem rather childish and basic, but before you know it they are working and the band is collaborating at a level they haven't experienced thus far in their twenty-plus year career. Then, before you know it, an argument between James and Lars escalates and James leaves the room and doesn't return. Unsure of what has happened, the band ceases recording and learns that James has checked himself into an extended-stay rehab program, where he will end up for nearly a year, putting the future of the record and the band itself in question. This leaves Lars and Kirk Hammett in complete disillusionment as they work through their issues with Phil while they wait to see if and when James will return to the fold. During this downtime, all work on the album ceases, though the therapy sessions continue, including the eventual meeting of Lars and ex-member Dave Mustaine, who was fired from the band just before they hit the big time. Once James decides to return to the band, things are very different from before, as per his recovery, he's only allowed to work a certain schedule, which upsets Lars and throws things even further into turmoil. Somehow through all of this they must unite as a band, putting together not only the CD and hiring a new bass player (Robert Trujillo of Ozzy Osbourne fame), but also facing the ever-changing nature of the music industry while all the while rebuilding their friendships.
The finished product that is Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is a different beast all together. Originally planned and financed by Elektra Records, this finished version is by no means a fluff piece aimed at selling records. In fact, it couldn't be any further from what it started, as Sinofsky and Berlinger have created a fascinating and exciting look at one of the biggest rock acts of modern times as they struggle through something that quite frankly would have broken apart almost any other band. Facing seemingly insurmountable odds, including the loss of a long-time member and recording sessions being cancelled after the lead singer leaves the band for an undermined amount of time, yet somehow coming through it as a more collected group of indidviduals, makes for some very interesting viewing material.
Documentarians Joe Berlinger (whose sole mainstream feature turned out to be the critically lambasted Blair Witch 2) and Bruce Sinofsky (of Paradise Lost fame) have captured a band in transition. Given unprecedented access to recording sessions, therapy sessions, and everything in between, fans are given the fly on the wall perspective of nearly two and a half years of Metallica's life. We see the good times, the bad times, and the times that are rarely seen. Even as a causal fan of their work, I couldn't help but be captured by all the talent in the band and how things came together on the "St. Anger" album. The film is serious in places but in others, including a scene with drummer Lars Ulrich's father commenting on what he thinks of some of the new unfinished material, is also hilarious. I spent a great majority of the time laughing along with the band, but never at them. Those laughs were saved for their glorified shrink Phil Towle, who after some time thought of himself as a member of the band and not a hired hand: a fact that's proven very wrong towards the end of the film as the band realizes they can go on without him.
One aspect that didn't bother me so much as it would hardcore Metallica fans is that the film doesn't contain much of Metallica's music. Sure, you can hear some during recording sessions and in the film's final pre-credit concert sequence, but for the most part there is very little in the way of music in the film. Also problematic was the fact that very little history on the band is provided. That fact won't bother the diehards, but since this film is more of a rockumentary, some people who don't know the history might be a little lost in places. Thankfully, this was remedied in the media notes which answered all of my questions about the timeline of the band. Some people might find the length of the movie a bit on the long side. I for one thought the film could lose a few minutes off its nearly two-hour and twenty-minute running time, but since I was so thoroughly engaged in what was occurring on screen, I hardly noticed the time pass by.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is some kind of film. It transcends the simple VH1 Behind the Music-type documentaries as well as the simple rockumentary films. Although this film is focused on the band Metallica, there is something in this film for anyone who's ever wanted to see the true creative process behind one of their favorite albums. Although "St. Anger" wasn't the gigantic hit the boys or the record company wanted, this film gives tremendous insight into the process. It's a funny, touching, and interesting look at the record business and just how certain things come to be. From the scenes detailing the band's first meetings with therapist Phil Towle to the most heated arguments between Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, to Kirk Hammet's love of surfing, there is rarely a dull moment. The fact that this film exists is a testament to the band, that not only gave Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger access to everything during a most trying time, but later bought back the film from its record company when it looked like they wanted to use a different cut as a promotional tool for the CD. This is the best film to come out dealing with music in some time, and is in many ways a must-see, not just for fans of the band, but for music fans in general. Recommended.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.