Metallica: Some Kind of Monster Review
Back in the early 1980s, Lars Ulrich decided not to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a Danish tennis international. Instead, he wanted to play drums in a heavy metal band. So, along with James Hetfield (rhythm guitar, vocals, and most of the lyrics) he founded Metallica. Soon afterwards Cliff Burton joined on bass and Kirk Hammett on lead guitar, the latter replacing Dave Mustaine who went on to form Megadeth. Metallica became one of the best-selling metal bands on the planet, and one of the most influential, managing to maintain the music’s speed and intensity without neglecting such things as melody, light and shade and mood. While no-one would number Hetfield among the greatest of rock lyricists, his words were a cut above sex, drugs and rock-and-roll clichés.
Metallica are unusual in that their classic lineup, as above, is not the one that produced their classic albums. While the first three albums have their adherents, most people would give the nod to either of their next two, And Justice for All and Metallica (also known as The Black Album). You could argue that Burton, a commanding stage presence who used the bass as much as another lead instrument as simply part of the rhythm section, was the factor that initially lifted Metallica above all the other California rock bands, but he was dead at age twenty-four, killed in a coach accident while on tour. Jason Newsted replaced him.
That was then. In 2001, when the band assembled to record a new album, they were at a low ebb. Increasingly sidelined, Newsted had left after fourteen years. Lars Ulrich’s lawsuit against music file-sharing service Napster had caused a fan backlash. (This exposes a contradiction at the heart of much rock music. It may trade on its anti-authority rebel image, but any successful band, certainly one as big as Metallica, is just as much a business as anything else.) Relations within the band were at an all-time low, with Hetfield and Ulrich frequently at each other’s throats and Hammett trying and failing to mediate. Then Hetfield, whose way with a drink had caused the band to be nicknamed Alcoholica, checked himself into rehab for much of a year. Therapist Phil Towle was hired at $40,000 a month to help the band sort itself out.
Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were hired to make a promotional documentary to accompany the new album. But what they ended up with is compelling indeed. It’s more than just a documentary about a heavy metal band – though if you have sensitive ears be aware the music played in the studio and in concert footage is very loud indeed – it’s a study of how men interact. Of machismo and competitiveness and failure to deal effectively with emotions. One scene that illustrates this is one where Ulrich has a meeting with Dave Mustaine. Twenty years after leaving Metallica, he seems haunted by his mistakes and having to come to terms with being number two – though Megadeth are hardly unsuccessful. Yet what he sees as his “fuck-up” seems to haunt him still. Another contradiction: for a music that trades in aggression and oneupmanship (faster/louder/heavier than you) it’s still the product of three or four people working as a team, with all the compromises and tamping-down of egos that that implies. The film explicitly asks if it is possible for a band to produce aggressive music out of positive rather than negative energy.
Well, you have to assess the result for yourself. The film seems determined to end on an up note, with the eventual album (St Anger) topping charts worldwide. The film doesn’t mention that the result is a somewhat experimental disc (no guitar solos!) that has divided critical and fan opinion considerably. The film is overlong at two and a quarter hours, but I would have liked some more attention given to the late Cliff Burton. It’s not hard to guess that inability to deal properly with his death may well explain much of the band’s behaviour, in particular their treatment of Jason Newsted.
As a documentary, Some Kind of Monster is very well made, crisply shot on video with a first-rate soundtrack. Commendably, the filmmakers haven’t gone down the route of Spinal Tap send-up, though that’s all that some people have found in this film. Metallica also deserve praise for allowing such a warts-and-all picture be shown. These may be rich rock stars with large egos, but they are still human beings, and specifically men, and what this film says about them is worth taking seriously.