In 2001, the heavy metal band Metallica hired documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to get up close and very personal. Founded in the ear-shattering wake of monsters like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, Metallica had in the 1980s and early 1990s become a popular, profitable and critically sanctioned metal band. The next leg of the journey was tougher. In the last decade, various devils, including ego, booze and Napster, took their toll on the band, leading to a cascade of crises and, in time, that profoundly American ritual: celebrity confession and redemption.
"Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" is a record of that confession and redemption, and it's head-banging entertainment from start to finish. The film opens in early 2001 shortly after the departure of longtime bass player, Jason Newsted. Photographed in separate interviews and during practice with his sideline musical venture, Echobrain, Newsted comes across as a man decidedly apart. Wounded rather than angry, the former Metallica member provides some unvarnished comments about his old band and one of the film's uneasy themes: the clash between independent vision and group interests. Because the film was principally shot in fly-on-the-wall fashion and features little extraneous commentary, Newsted also functions as an important counter to the received wisdom of Metallica's singer and guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, as well as producer and substitute bassist Bob Rock.
By turns exasperating, appalling and surprisingly empathetic — sometimes all in the same moment — the three members of Metallica quickly emerge as the main attractions in "Some Kind of Monster," but not for the reasons you might expect. The film was commissioned by the band for promotional purposes and, in keeping with these sorts of ventures, shouldn't have evolved beyond the usual showboating. But something happened during the two years that Berlinger and Sinofsky kept the cameras going: The group came close to imploding, ripping a large tear in their public fellowship. Metallica had cultivated a bad-boy reputation (their hard partying earned them the sobriquet "Alcoholica") but kept intact through good times and bad. Now with the musicians in their 40th year or on the verge, they were facing the twinned challenge of a middle-age breakup.
Although the band doesn't make an obvious big deal about their ages, rarely has the tyranny of youth on rock and roll seemed as naked and devastating an issue as it is in this movie. "Some Kind of Monster" is a film about a lot of things: people with too much money, the corrosive power of jealousy and the evil known as the recording industry. Mostly, though, it's about three guys trying to live in the world after a freakishly extended, commercially expedient adolescence. Whatever else you think of Metallica's music, it's hard not to be moved by these men trying to destroy or at least put a leash on their monsters. As it turns out, age has a way of biting everyone on the backside, even when those backsides have spent decades encased in extremely tight jeans.
"Some Kind of Monster" is generally harder-hitting than the usual behind-the-music cable inquiries. But Berlinger and Sinofsky, whose previous nonfiction films include "Brother's Keepers," aren't working the same risky territory Robert Frank did in his documentary about the Rolling Stones' 1972 American tour. Filled with graphic sex and drug use, Frank's shocker can be screened only in limited circumstances, which can happen when the band writes the check and doesn't like what it sees. By contrast, in "Some Kind of Monster" Hetfield bares his teeth, but he hits rock bottom only while safely off-screen. Ulrich reaps millions by selling his art collection, a coup he marks by popping a champagne cork. Hammett proves to be a very nice, very dull guy who rides horses, smiles a lot and says little of interest.
There's nothing overtly shocking or juicy about "Some Kind of Monster." No one shoots heroin or cracks open someone else's head with a broken beer bottle; the worst acting out involves bear hunting and some questionable music. Controversy isn't the point, and if the soft-pedaling seems at odds with our scandal-seeking climate, it's also a relief. Like the official portraits of kings and queens that line European museums, the film is, finally, a vanity project. But like Phil Towle, the "performance enhancement coach" who charges the band $40,000 a month for the sort of advice Oprah gives away, there's something irresistible about Metallica's efforts to share their bid at self-improvement. They may still be hustling records, but they're also clearly trying to break on through to the other side.
'Metallica: Some Kind of Monster'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult language
A Third Eye Motion Picture Co. release, an @radical.media Production, released by IFC Films. Directors, producers Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky. Supervising editor David Zieff. Director of photography Bob Richman. Editors Doug Abel, M Watanabe Milmore. Sound recordist Michael Emery. Production manager Cheryll Stone. Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes.
Exclusively at the ArcLight, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood (323) 464-4226.
'Metallica: Some Kind of Monster'
Metallica's bad boys share their bumpy path to redemption.
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