2004 / Movie Reviews / Music

Review: Metallica’s ‘Monster’ Makes Success Of Failure

Metal Band Airs Dirty Laundry For Documentary

For anyone who heard Metallica’s last record “St. Anger,” the news that the metal gods were releasing a 120-minute making-of documentary would seem like an invitation to waste time.

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Why should an audience pay to watch a bunch of rock stars who jumped the shark long ago quibble over songs that we already know suck?

And anyway, music-oriented movies have a long history of being dicey products. For every “Woodstock” or “Don’t Look Back” that holds up as genuine works of cinema, there’s an “Under A Cherry Moon” or “Song Remains The Same” that served only to pad overripe egos.

While Metallica’s music remains the movie’s weakest spot (although it’s occasionally good for a laugh), the non-stop obstacles confronting the band and the interactions of the “characters” are what make this movie such interesting viewing. Not unlike their musical godfather Ozzy Osbourne, who would have thought 20 years into their career that Metallica would be far more interesting as characters than as musicians?)

This is the heart of the movie’s appeal. “Some Kind Of Monster” is the big-screen spawn of reality television. (In fact, Metallica frontman James Hetfield has said that “Monster” was originally hatched as a project designed to copy the success of MTV’s “The Osbournes.”) Much of the drama occurs on-camera and while the filmmakers are obviously sympathetic to the group, the action seems to unfold outside the band’s direct control and each member gets shown in less than flattering light. It’s like a backstage pass to watch the dysfunction. The band is creating their clearest musical failure, but the movie succeeds in being entertaining for just that reason.

With pressure to make a new record and heal their internal wounds, the three band members (along with producer/fill-in bassist Bob Rock) enter into group therapy sessions with Phil Towle, a highly paid “performance enhancement coach” with experience counseling pro athletes.

The film quickly sucks an audience into the band’s lavish yet claustrophobic world of rehearsals, recording sessions, band meetings, inane promotional activities and rock star posturing — all interspersed with therapy sessions. It firmly establishes the movie’s overarching focus: Will the band survive to finish the record, appropriately titled “St. Anger”?

This struggle is exacerbated by the idea that, as a result of Newsted’s exit and Hetfield’s writer’s block, the band decides to adopt a more egalitarian approach to songwriting, allowing stifled producer Rock and the long-sidelined Hammett to pitch in ideas. The group sits around and jams to come up with melodies, critiquing each other at every step. For the lyrics, they all jot down ideas on notepads. (The fact that they’re creatively scraping the bottom of the barrel is unimportant. At one point, the band members feel like they’ve clicked when someone comes up a lyric like “my lifestyle determines my death style.”)

Feelings of suspense only build when Hetfield (one of the rare moments in this saga that happens off-camera) surprisingly departs for rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. With Hetfield gone for nearly a third of the picture (in real time, he was gone for several months), the remaining band members are seen going to therapy, and trying to steel themselves should Hetfield decide to permanently exit the group,

When Hetfield returns, tensions finally boil over when Ulrich lambastes Hetfield during a therapy session for being a control freak and demanding the band members adhere to a strict schedule mandated as part of his recovery (previously, the band members were forbidden to discuss the music if Hetfield wasn’t present). The scene culminates when Ulrich and Hetfield both shrink from the decision the audience can clearly see: these guys shouldn’t be working together anymore. And in this lack of resolve, the pair finally has something they agree upon and although the issues are never resolved between them, the band keeps recording.

The group’s odd referee is Towle, who dressed in an almost endless number of Cosby-esque sweaters, inadvertently provides the movie’s most hilarious moments: he succeeds in getting the band members to craft a mission statement; he coolly passes song lyric suggestions to Hetfield; and he tapes “motivational messages” on the studio walls and amps (“The Zone: Admission is Believing!”).

It doesn’t come as a surprise that Metallica survives the ordeal to finish the uninspired “St. Anger” and hired ex-Sucidal Tendencies’ Robert Trujilo to be their new bassist (a process also caught on film), but how in spite of the unmelodic crap that they’re committing to tape, you can’t help wanting to see how the struggle is resolved and secretly pulling for them to finish the record (in part to see them come together again as well as to put our ears out of their misery).

While the filmmakers give their best shot to make the movie a hero’s tale — a band of brothers coming back to together to overcome adversity — it’s really about the dissolution of the band. The camera follows as a trio of friends and erstwhile musical partners allow success, money, chemicals and hubris alienate themselves from each other to such an extent that when their talent burns out, all they can do is find a way to keep it together for a bit longer.

The directors were also just lucky. Whether through the trust they had built up with the band or sheer tenaciousness, the filmmakers succeed in catching on camera so much of the crucial fireworks that the film relies upon. (Contrast this with Sam Jones’ 2002 documentary about Wilco, “I’m Trying To Break Your Heart,” which covered similar inter-band turmoil, but most of the drama happened off-camera. In that case, most of the facts were carefully spun after the fact by band leader Jeff Tweedy or his manager Tony Margherita.)

The filmmakers are also fortunate that the movie came together at a time when reality TV has established that there’s audience for gazing into celebrities’ lives. In the past, a movie like “Some Kind Of Monster” probably wouldn’t have been made or at the very least, played in theaters. Mark Burnett and his brethren have primed American audiences and opened them up to be entertained by documentary-style filmmaking. And it is them that audiences have in part to thank for this movie — one of the best of an era.

Editor’s Note: “Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster” is playing at select locations around the country. To find where the movie is playing in a theater nearby, visit the movie’s official Web site.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2004 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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