The Emotional Portal
All of a sudden, day one, we’re in therapy with these guys. We’re storytellers, and we said, let’s push that door open.
—Bruce Sinofsky, commentary, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
On 9/11, I was, that morning, calling a friend of mine, telling him how bad things were for me, and he said, “James, do you know what’s going on in the world?” I go turn on the tv, and felt like, you know, my problems were nothing.
—James Hetfield, commentary, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
“I would say actually Lars is the guy I most bonded with, Bruce. I’m just wondering, who did you feel closest to?” Joe Berlinger’s question to his collaborator Bruce Sinofsky comes near the start of their DVD commentary for Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. The question, the answer, and the discussion that follows are all revealing: Sinofsky asserts his attachment to James Hetfield, because, he says, he sympathizes with his sense of privacy and fear of abandonment. For his part, Berlinger describes his own trauma over the temporary break he made from Sinofsky in order to make (or more accurately, to endure the trauma of making) Blair Witch 2 (“We had had our own collaborative and ego issues, we hadn’t made a film in two years”). Berlinger sees his own affinity with in a shared tendency to be “in negative and positive ways, incredibly anal and compulsive,” and “each of us being the respective business leaders of our ventures, getting obsessed and involved in details to such a degree that we annoy out collaborators. So thank god you have a mellow personality.” Berlinger laughs and Sinofsky agrees, “I am very mellow.”
They also agree that for this project—documenting Metallica’s meltdown, therapy, and reconstitution over almost four years, resulting in the album St. Anger—they “really had fun.” Unlike their previous films, Brother’s Keeper (1992), Paradise Lost (1996), and Paradise Lost 2 (2000), this one involved no murders or conversations with parents of dead children. Sinofsky says, “This was a lot of joy, to be in a studio with musicians and people you respect, and watch the creative process, but also to watch these people break themselves down to their essence and start rebuilding themselves was an inspiration.” In other words, the film was transformative for the filmmakers as well as their subjects.
“I think that’s the beauty of making these cinema verité journeys,” Berlinger affirms (deferring as well to their models, the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin), “Where you jump out a window and hope there’s a mattress on the other side to catch you, that you don’t know where the stories are going and it’s not just about making a film, it’s about these life experiences that you and I have, that change us and make us better people.” Sinofsky calls it “the emotional portal,” that rare occasion when “the doors open up wide and you either have the guts to walk through them or you need somebody to push you through. And if you can make that jump through the door, you’ll be able to do something very, very special.”
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is “very special,” in a few ways. A film “about exorcising your demons,” as Berlinger calls it, the documentary lays out all kinds of processes, reconstructed in Paramount’s lovely two-disc DVD, featuring the filmmakers’ self-examining commentary track, and another, less talky, by the band members. Watching the opening shots of the press questions about the album that resulted fro the therapy, vocalist James Hetfield sighs in sing-song, “What’s your favorite color?”; when they first see “therapist/performance enhancement expert” Phil Towle on screen, he sighs, “Felt like we were in that room for-ever.”
The film tracks these tedious therapy sessions, as the band recuperated from the departure of longtime bassist Jason Newsted, tired of the ongoing arguments between Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. After 90 million records sold and more 20 years spent on the road and in studios, the hard-living pair appeared increasingly unable to collaborate, with guitarist Kirk Hammett’s efforts at appeasement falling by the wayside. Their company, Q-Prime, hired Towle (for $40,000 a month) to bring the boys back into some state resembling working order. Metallica, intones the therapist, “needed to take a look at itself.” The film begins at the end of this process, with the band promoting St. Anger. Asked to describe “the span of his career” in one word, Hetfield is stumped and bored. At this point, Some Kind of Monster turns back to the moments when the album, Metallica’s first studio project in seven years, looked like it would never be completed. With Newsted’s departure, producer Bob Rock agrees to play bass for the record, and set up a studio at the Presidio, apparently perceived as a restorative environment. Hetfield appears in his expensive sports car: “I really like going fast,” he testifies.
The film repeats biographical information that will be old news for the band’s fans. Since their inception in the Bay Area in 1982, the band notoriously careened from disaster to disaster, including the 1985 death of first bass player Cliff Burton. With ups and downs made incessantly public, they have endured a raucous blur of substance-abusing (they were once called “Alcoholica”), infighting, and raging at various external targets (their noisy campaign against Napster, in which Ulrich became most vocal, earned them a dubious distinction, as the “band most hated by their own fans”). As the sessions with Towle begin, the film patches together old concert footage and the Presidio rehearsal sessions, soon skidding to a kind of stop when Hetfield begins rolling his eyes at Towle’s corny New Agey speak. Hetfield removes himself to rehab (a stint that will last over a year), whereupon the filmmakers, band members, and management decide to pursue the documentary anyway. It’s transformed into something else, a weird therapeutic exposé, partly self-defensive, partly confessional, and largely performative, as the cameras frame and enhance every declaration.
Towle early on convinces the band to generate a “Metallica Mission Statement.” Their sessions take up a good chunk of Some Kind of Monster‘s 139 minutes running time (culled from some 1600 hours of footage shot). His techniques range from prodding his clients to “share” their feelings, to suggestions for behavioral changes. At one point, during Hetfield’s absence, he convinces Ulrich to sit down with Metallica’s former lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (who, on being fired by Metallica in 1984, formed Megadeath and carried a lasting grudge against Ulrich and Hetfield). On his return to work and the film, Hetfield establishes that his family and home are off-limits (he not only restricts his rehearsal time to four hours a day, but also insists the other band members stop work when he does, inspiring Ulrich’s fuming about what it means to be “rock band”). By contrast, mellow Hammett opens up his serene home amid rolling hills to cameras and agrees to cut back on guitar solos (“I’m actually very comfortable with my role in this band,” he says, “I’m not a really egotistical person”). And by yet another contrast, Ulrich takes Towle to visit with his father, Torbin, once a professional tennis player, who leans on his walking stick and offers his blunt opinion of the record so far: “I would say, delete that.”
On Day 701 of the film’s production, the band undertakes a video shoot, performing for prisoners at the California State Prison at San Quentin. (This would be used to promote the album’s first single, “St. Anger”: “I need my anger not to control. / I want my anger to be me.”) Speaking to his tattooed, hard-bodied, mean-looking audience, Hetfield suggests that if it had not been for his music, he would have ended up in prison or dead. But it’s clear that he’s not like these particular fans here, that he’s fortunate beyond words, if wounded in ways that he can’t articulate.
By Day 715, Ulrich sounds nearly converted (“You can make something that’s aggressive and fucked up with positive energy”), and the band is moving on, in part signaled by their search for a bass player for the tour: their selection of Robert Trujillo produces the film’s happiest seeming moment, as he’s giddy at the prospect. Shortly afterwards, the group does break with Towle, who’s talking about accompanying them on the road. Hetfield puts his foot down: “We don’t want to have our hand held through life.” When he hears the news, Towle’s upset is uncomfortable to see, as he accuses band members of denying their need of him and exposes what seems his own need of them. By this time, you’ve seen how complex and seductive their intricate pathologies can be, their strangely intoxicating and harrowing dynamic. More than anything, the film is, perversely and brilliantly, about itself, about self-analysis and performing selves.