Urban Cinefile
"Ballet - I kind of fancy myself as a dying swan"  -Billy Connolly on his ambitions
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



The initial decision to go into rehab - into a facility, not just visit a therapist “like I had before,” the ‘Mighty’ Metallica’s James Hetfield (whose drinking gave rise to the ‘Alcoholica’ moniker) tells Nick Roddick in New York, “was somewhat made for me by my wife throwing me out of the house …” It’s but one more candid revelation in the riveting story of the greatest heavy metal band of all time, captured on a film that pretty much exhausts the subject of the guys who make up Metallica. It’s extreme... it’s metal.

‘Day 715.’ A caption near the end of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s long and utterly compulsive documentary, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, says it all. The making of Metallica’s new album, St Anger (a track from which gives the film its title), was a marathon. In the movies, even Tom Cruise has to stick to a schedule. In the music business, it is accepted (though less so than it used to be) that, when major bands go into the studio, they don’t come out until they’re good and ready. 

715 days is how long it took for Metallica to be good and ready. And they certainly qualify as a major band: they’re the biggest touring act of the 90s in North America, with album sales of 90 million. Metallica may not have put the stadium into rock, but they certainly kept it there. “The ‘mighty’ Metallica,” chuckles front man James Hetfield, almost daring you to challenge the audible quotation marks. When Hetfield does a stage leap, he does it feet - or rather boots - first. And there is no question of him crashing to the floor, like Jack Black in School of Rock. The fans are there for James. Even if they weren’t, there just isn’t room to hit the floor in a Metallica mosh pit, not until about 100 yards back.

And then, with Berlinger and Sinofsky’s cameras rolling, it all starts to unravel, in discussions and disputes which are by turn cringe-making in their self-obsessed psychobabble and jaw-dropping in their naked self-exposure. “When I watch scenes of me,” said Hetfield, shortly before the film’s New York premiere this July, “it’s like ‘Dude! I would not put up with that! I would not be in a room with you!’”

"a unique piece of film-making"

This is very much not a music documentary (although there’s plenty of music in it). It’s a unique piece of film-making born out of shutting five sizeable egos (three musicians and two film-makers) together for a little bit too long. It isn’t that the rock ‘n’ roll guys explain themselves to the film guys; and the film guys don’t explain the rock ‘n’ roll guys to us. But there is a lot of truth in there. And a lot of guys, too.

The years from 2001 to 2003 were not a continuously creative time for Metallica. They set up a temporary, distraction-free studio in the Praesidium, an old San Francisco barracks, to start recording the album that would eventually become St Anger. They went into therapy with Phil Towle, a counsellor cum ‘performance enhancement coach’, to try and resolve escalating conflicts within the band, especially those between Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, who together founded Metallica in 1981. Guitarist Kirk Hammett joined a year later, but Metallica has gone through other band members the way Spinal Tap went through drummers.

Shortly after filming started, Hetfield, whose drinking habits on and off stage led to the band being nicknamed ‘Alcoholica’, walked out of the Praesidium and was not seen again, by cameras or fellow band members, for 11 months. “The initial decision to go into rehab - into a facility, not just visit a therapist like I had before,” he tells me, “was somewhat made for me by my wife throwing me out of the house, saying ‘You go and check into a hospital or a facility or something: you need to get some help’.”

When he came back, Metallica finally wrote and recorded St Anger, then hired former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Robert Trujillo (producer Bob Rock plays bass on the album) for their 13-month tour. Ozzy promptly replaced Trujillo with Jason Newsted, who quit Metallica in 2001 - an event which, as much as anything, triggered the crisis. With that accomplished, the band fired the cathartic but distinctly creepy Towle. In the film, he is seen arguing that the fact he sold his house in Kansas City doesn’t necessarily mean he thinks his $40,000-a-month position with the California-based band is permanent.

I was not altogether surprised, however, to see Towle at the film’s post-premiere party in New York, along with Sean Penn and a lot of NY indie film people. Hetfield, who in the film is adamant about getting rid of him, now says he thinks of Towle as “a gift… a father figure” (albeit one you have to pay for).

Berlinger and Sinofsky had first met Metallica when they approached the band to ask if they could use ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’, a track from the Master of Puppets album, on the soundtrack of Paradise Lost, an earlier documentary about three Memphis teenagers found guilty of a triple homicide, partly on the grounds that they were alleged satanists who listened to heavy metal.

Religious fundamentalists have, of course, always had it in for metal. But it doesn’t get great press from the mainstream music press, either. Somehow, it has always defined the crap end of the critical spectrum, seen as more embarrassing (if less naff) than Dido. The Guardian will send reviewers to most kinds of gigs, but I don’t recall a review of, say, Megadeth. Or Metallica.

"a complex and challenging album"

This is unfair: Metallica has evolved and developed through its 20-year history, and St Anger is a complex and challenging album, more punk than thrash (the Berlin Wall that separated punk from heavy metal in the UK never really existed in the US). 

“They’re really reaching back into the old stuff,” says Cathy Campagna of US magazine Metal Edge, my guide in a world where dinosaurs still walk the earth. “St Anger is a total grow-on-you listen.” And Metallica are nobody’s fools - certainly not Berlinger and Sinofsky’s. One thing the musos and the film guys do have in common, though: they all take each other - and themselves - very seriously.

When they first met the band, Berlinger and Sinofsky were definitely not metalheads. “We approached Metallica in ’96 with all sorts of our own stereotypes,” says Berlinger, “like they must be a bunch of beer-swilling, moronic idiots. We weren’t fans of the music, but we wanted it for our film.” That last statement says a lot, not just about Berlinger and Sinofsky, but about film-makers in general.

Back in ’96, Metallica stunned them by not only agreeing, but giving them the track for free. “I’ve been big fans of Joe and Bruce since Brother’s Keeper,” explains the distinctly unmoronic Ulrich, referring to their earlier, Sundance-awarded documentary about a murder case involving four elderly, semi-literate brothers living in upstate New York.

The latest film has its indirect origins in that encounter. “They were so courteous and so interested - and so proud of their connection to Paradise Lost after it came out,” says Berlinger. “It fascinated us that their on-stage persona was very different from who they were as real people. Lars in particular, would be a film guy if he wasn’t who he is.”

He is who he is, of course, but when Ulrich heard that the two film-makers had been approached to do a promo film about the making of the new album, he was “totally excited”. Even then, he wanted it to be more than an infomercial. “This whole thing about hiring them to do a promo film: I was hoping that, once they got out, it was going to be a little more than that.”

The film-makers hoped so, too. “You don’t get rich making movies like Paradise Lost,” says Sinofsky. “We make money by doing commercials and corporate films for American Express or whoever. So, yeah, we took this as a corporate assignment. But we thought we could nudge it in a more personal direction,”

"one large obstacle"

There was, however, one large obstacle. “Every time we had these meetings and told them we’d like to nudge this infomercial into a more personal direction, James would look at us and go, ‘No fucking way!’” Which should have been it. Even post-rehab, Hetfield is a pretty scary guy: heavily built, heavily tattooed and with a growly, heavy-metal voice. “He’s one of the most intimidating guys I’ve met - if he wants to be,” says Berlinger, who can be pretty scrappy himself.

But that was then. Enter the new James - “the best me I can be right now”, as he puts it, grinning benignly from behind yellow-tinted glasses. The new James - and, for that matter, the film - are a result of Metallica’s management introducing them to Towle. The therapist, presumably to show that these were not just any old clients, held his sessions in the Ritz Carlton, San Francisco (although whether the room rate was included in the $40,000 a month is not clear). Thereafter, the cameras kept rolling, on and off, for three years, and the resulting film is possibly the only documentary ever made in which new-age psychobabble vies for screen-time with heavy metal riffs and people shouting “Fuck you” at one another.

It could have been a soap opera. It’s easy to imagine an Ozzy-fied version of Some Kind of Monster: a reality TV series with a cast of what Hetfield calls, the quotation marks still hanging in the air, “these crazy rocker guys”. Instead of Ozzy, you get Hetfield, with a huge tattoo of St Michael battling his demons taking up his entire right forearm. Instead of Sharon, there’s Lars, who is about half Hetfield’s size, and who handles the band’s business affairs. He comes across in the film as the angriest and most manipulative, but in real life (or as near real life as you get in an interview) as highly intelligent and capable of surprising mental leaps sideways.

And finally, there is lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, the only band member still to have long hair (albeit only just past his shoulder). Hammett comes across as a gentle surfer dude with a California ranch to which he retreats whenever possible. “I’ve always been the nice guy,” he jokes. “I’ve been the referee of the band for the last 20 years. If I wasn’t there, or if I just got into the thick of it with as much intensity as those guys, we might not have lasted…”

"Hammett is also the nearest thing Metallica has to a guitar god"

Hammett is also the nearest thing Metallica has to a guitar god. A generation of (mainly American) teenagers learned to play guitar from Hammett tablatures published in the metal mags. Although he probably had less “issues” to “address” than Hetfield or Ulrich, Hammett now accepts the need for the sessions with Towle. “It came to the point where therapy was pretty much the last choice we had,” he says. “All the other ones were running out. The choice that we hung onto for a long time was the whole sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll thing. But that had stopped working for us and was doing more damage than anything else. Therapy was the only way that would really help us gain any kind of reconnection. That’s part of the reason Jason [Newsted] left: because the non-communication and disconnectedness was starting to take people.”

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is, in the end, a lot more than a fly-on-the-wall record of some middle-aged famous guys getting their heads fixed (although there is considerable pleasure to be had in that aspect of it). Through a curious combination of chance and chemistry, it has all the makings of a classic, echoing both the Maysles brothers Gimme Shelter (an influence acknowledged by Berlinger and Sinofsky, who “got their chops” with the Maysles) and Godard’s One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil), not for the politics but for its examination of the creative process.

But (unlike, perhaps, the Stones in Shelter), there is no sense of Metallica being set up: for one thing, they own the film. When Elektra wanted to use the footage on TV, the band prevented this by the simple (if costly) device of buying it. “It wasn’t contentious,” claims Berlinger. “Elektra was gracious enough to step away - I think ‘relieved’ is probably the better word. [The band] handed them a cheque for $2 million and took over the rest of the financing” (completing it cost another $4-5 million). Filming continued, but creative control remained with the film-makers. “I found it fairly unbelievable that these guys gave us final cut,” says Berlinger, “that there’s nothing in the film that they asked us to put in or take out.”

Playing on only two screens in New York and one in LA, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster “rocked the box office” (Screen International) when it opened. And, while UK audiences, less tolerant of the language of therapy and self-actualisation, may find more parts of the film unintentionally comic than their US counterparts, it would be hugely sad if the idea of a documentary about either group therapy or a heavy metal band kept serious filmgoers away - or, indeed, if all the talk and therapy proved a turn-off for metalheads.

"structurally a very ambitious film"

Cutting between therapy and recording, ‘real life’ and archival footage, facing up and flight, Some Kind of Monster is structurally a very ambitious film - perhaps too much so for the first 10-15 minutes. “This was the most difficult edit we’ve ever had,” admits Berlinger - who, with Sinofsky and supervising editor David Zieff (a veteran of Michael Moore’s TV series The Awful Truth and TV Nation), spent two years cutting the film. “There was no obvious linear structure like a murder trial that we’ve had the luxury of in the past. It is more [about] thematic and emotional development, which is harder to sell and harder to keep the audience engaged with.

“The other structural challenge was that anyone even remotely interested in music knows that Metallica didn’t break up. So we made a very fundamental decision to open the film in the present tense and flash back. Gimme Shelter is also a flashback structure, where you start with knowing what happens: Jagger walks in to the Maysles’ editing suite and plays the stabbing. You know what the end is, so the storytelling challenge is actually harder: it’s not what happened, but how it happened and why.”

“Lars has said that the cameras were like a truth serum, and that if the cameras weren’t in the therapy session, they would have bull-shitted each other,” claims Sinofsky. This is only partly true. The fascination of the film comes from the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the band-members, who bring as much testosterone-driven intensity to dredging through their hang-ups as they do to blasting out a power chord - or as they presumably did to all the bad-boy behaviour on which they now claim to have turned their backs. Indeed, there are elements of performance everywhere: on stage, in therapy, with each other, not to mention doing interviews.

But did it ever go overboard, I asked Hammett, the band member who seems to be performing least (which may, of course, mean he is the most skilful performer of all)? “To be truthful, I think it’s all overboard,” he says, with a half-grin which indicates either detached amusement or wry resignation. “It all went too far - every aspect of it. but that’s what makes it what it is. It’s a very extreme movie, extreme in the depth that it attains; extreme in the way that we opened ourselves up to the cameras; extreme in all the events that were brought into our lives.”

All those ‘extremes’: maybe Some Mind of Monster is a heavy metal movie, after all. “Fuck it all and no regrets,” as the title track of St Anger goes. “I need to set my anger free.”

Published September 9, 2004

Email this article

James Hetfield & Lars Ulrich


© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020