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Metallica: Some Kind of Monster Review

By Shawn McKenzie 11/01/2004

Metallica is one of the groups that defined my childhood.  I was 8 years old when the band released their first album Kill ‘Em All in 1983, and the only image I had of them was as that “scary” band that the “bad” kids had on their T-shirts.  I thought I’d never be a big fan of heavy metal in my life.  All of that changed in 1988 when I heard the haunting, beautiful masterpiece named “One” from the album …And Justice for All.  It was all over then…I became a metalhead, though to this day you’d never swear it by looking at me.  Around 1991, Metallica released their Metallica album (a.k.a. The Black Album), and though it was hugely successful, it seemed to be a disappointment to the hardcore fans.  The ‘90s seemed to continue with this creative slump, so when they came out with St. Anger in 2003 (their first full studio album in over five years, their last one being 1997’s Re-Load), I had high hopes.  While the album was harder than their last one, James Hetfield’s singing was a little goofy and Lars Ulruich’s drumming sounded like he was banging on trash can lids.  The point though isn’t that this isn’t a music review; it is an interesting, though very long, journey that Metallica went through called Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.  This is their tale.

In 2001, Metallica wanted to record another album, and it would be their first in a long time.  Unfortunately, their bassist, Jason Newsted, has quit the band to form a new band called Echobrain (he had left over creative differences; Hetfield had always had a ground rule that no member of his band was allowed to work on side projects, and Newsted found that stifling.)  They needed to find a replacement for Newsted, so record producer Bob Rock stands in as the studio bassist.  Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (1996’s Paradise Lost) film the band in their sessions which would last almost two years.  They start recording at The Presidio, a former San Francisco military outpost, and right away, the tensions build.  At first, we see the band doing fun things, like playing with their kids, Ulrich buying a Basquiat painting, Hetfield attending his daughter’s ballet recital, and guitarist Kirk Hammett riding funny cars.  Then the record label decides to hire therapist and performance coach Phil Towle (at the expense of $40,000 a month) to work on the band’s interpersonal issues and help them record their new album, because the departure of Newsted might be a sign that the band might break up.  Known for years as “Alcoholica” in their partying days, they hoped that Towle might be able to curb their bad behavior.  The band’s inspiration soon goes away, and the project grinds to a halt when Hetfield disappears into rehab for a year, making the rest of the band wonder what was going to happen.  When he returns, the band has now abandoned The Presidio and is now recording the album in a new studio called HQ.  In the meantime, the band meets with former Megadeth vocalist and guitarist Dave Mustaine to discuss his feelings about being kicked out of Metallica right before they hit it big.  By this time, Towle has become a little too familiar with the band, and has jokingly suggested that he should join them full-time.  They decide to let him go, figuring that they don’t need him anymore (though Hetfield’s post rehab therapy does need a little tweaking.)  Also, the movie explores Ulrich’s controversy over Napster, making him and Metallica one of the most hated bands in America (I will reserve judgment over how I actually think about that, though it might be surprising, considering how I am politically, which is Libertarian.)  Ulrich meets with his eccentric hippie Scandinavian dad Torban, who criticizes the way the band’s direction has gone.  Finally, the band hires former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Robert Trujillo to fill Newsted’s shoes, and they complete the album.

This documentary has been compared to the fictional mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, though not as funny.  There are similarities, like having to replace the bassist (instead of the drummer) a few times (former Metallica bassist Cliff Burton died in a bus accident in 1986), and the internal squabbles within the band.  It may not be funny, but the real life drama is more interesting.

I’m surprised that the band allowed this project to go on.  It was supposed to be financed the record label as a promotional flick, or a reality TV project, a.k.a. “The Osbournes,” but the band bought the rights to the documentary and allowed an uncensored view into the life of the band.  Since Berlinger and Sinofsky didn’t have to foot the bill, they were allowed the freedom to show the band in anyway they wanted, and those images weren’t always flattering.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster could have been a fluff piece, but it turned out to be an interesting psychological look into the legendary band.  It helps if you like the music of Metallica, but even if you don’t, you can witness the real human drama that unfolded with the band.  My only gripe might be that it is a little long for a documentary (it is 2 hours and 10 minutes long), but in the end, you’ll be head-banging with the rest of us.


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