Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is a portrait of a rock band in crisis. What’s surprising, even original, about it is where and when the crisis takes place: Metallica here is not dealing with sudden success (like Radiohead in Meeting People is Easy), on the brink of arduous artistic breakthrough (Wilco in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart), or on tour (most rock documentaries). Instead, the band is facing middle age.
The project began as a promotional film documenting the recording of Metallica’s 2003 album, St. Anger, but quickly turned into a film about the band not recording much at all. As the camera reveals, rehearsals stalled by distracted band members: lead singer James Hetfield leaves for a stint in rehab. Meanwhile, drummer Lars Ulrich is distracted by his famous legal battles with Napster.
When work on the album begins anew, the band hires a therapist to help them work through their “personal” issues. Some Kind of Monster‘s attention to the band therapy and subsequent lack of typical rockumentary padding, such as talking-head interviews and unimaginative concert footage, is impressive: imagine The Osbournes stripped of its sitcom machinations and much of its familial love. When Metallica suffers through screaming matches and petty infighting, it’s raw and ugly.
Humor inevitably emerges from the dysfunction and childish behavior (especially with Hetfield’s repeated door-slamming), but it’s human comedy, not a divine joke. We see Metallica struggle through collaboration as a band: fighting, rehearsing, writing, and fighting some more. That the band allows us to look at the songwriting process is an act of bravery. Their lyrics come off (intentionally or not) as a cobbled-together product of awkward groupthink, utilitarian afterthoughts to sing over pre-existing guitar riffs. The filmmakers pay lip service to the idea that band members are expressing themselves through their music and lyrics, but nothing they write is as memorable as the footage of them writing it.
Some Kind of Monster is less about artistic triumph than professional triumph: can these working relationships be saved? Sometimes it’s easy to snap out of fascination and wonder, does it matter? A Metallica breakup would have left all three core members — Hetfield, Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett — reasonably (if not ridiculously) wealthy, with a 20-year legacy intact. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky never make a convincing case for the band’s artistry (the film tends to quote sales figures). I’m left wondering what makes Metallica so important.
Is it possible that I reacted with occasional indifference to Some Kind of Monster because I’ve never been inspired by the band’s music? Yes, and other non-fans may feel the same way. The running time tests their endurance, and vignettes shoot off in all directions. The scenes with Lars auctioning off his impressive art collection are wholly unnecessary; they’re perfect material for a two-disc DVD set, not a 140-minute theatrical release.
An advantage of this excessive running time is that the audience does feel that it’s gotten to know these band members uncommonly well. Guitarist Kirk Hammett garners sympathy as the well-meaning, inarticulate man caught in the middle of so much squabbling. But the film’s focus is on the men who put him there. In parts, Lars makes a fine comedic foil, somehow yammering and seething at the same time, but his quarrels with Hetfield can seem inconsequential, especially if you don’t care about their music; sometimes a stupid argument is just a stupid argument.
Survival stories in rock are admittedly rare, or at least difficult to tell; it’s a lot easier (and more sentimental) to dash off a project about someone who died too soon. That an in-depth Metallica profile emerges before a Kurt Cobain biopic is almost miraculous. As a survival story, Some Kind of Monster succeeds, yet it is more exhausting than exhilarating. The film creates an uneasy sense of relief: was I relieved that they survived, or that it ended?