Metallica in Therapy


Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky could hardly have known what they were in for when they set out to make a movie about Metallica. Though they had brief contact with the band previously (in securing permission to use some music for their film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills), this time, the mighty rockers' label was paying the directors to document the recording of an album.

That album was "St. Anger," and it took nearly three years to make.

When Berlinger and Sinofsky arrived, the band was recuperating from the departure of longtime bassist Jason Newsted, who finally had enough of the group's perennial "creative disputes" and ongoing arguments between vocalist James 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, decided to take drastic action, and hired "therapist/performance enhancement expert" Phil Towle (for $40,000 a month) to bring the boys back into some state resembling working order. Metallica, intones Towle, "needed to take a look at itself."

The film begins at the end of the process, with the band promoting the new record, acting almost as if it's like any other. Asked to describe "the span of his career" in one word, Hetfield is stumped and bored. The point is cut to emphasize how answering such inane questions, again and again, can become tedious, depressing, and daunting. At this point, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster turns the page, back to the moments when the album, Metallica's first studio project in seven years, looked like it wouldn't ever be completed.

Initially, Newsted's exit sends Metallica into something of an emotional, even existential, tailspin. In an effort to calm themselves, they bring on producer Bob Rock 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. No kidding. 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 sketchy New Agey speak; when he asks if they can "sack" him, Ulrich says no, "the Phil stuff is important," an "investment in the music." Soon after, Hetfield removes himself to rehab (a stint that will last over a year), whereupon the filmmakers, band members, and management decide to pursue the project anyway. It's transformed into something else, a weird therapeutic exposé, partly self-defensive, partly confessional, and largely performative (it's no secret at any point that cameras are rolling).

One of Towle's first steps is to get the band to generate a "Metallica Mission Statement." Towle's sessions with the band 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).

The filmmakers have never pretended to be "objective" documentarians, but in their earlier work, it was easy to take the sides they laid out, against the invasive news media Brother's Keeper (1992) or the prejudiced locals and self-serving legal system in Paradise Lost. Here, all the figures on screen appear flawed and vulnerable, by turns self-indulgent, spoiled, and struggling to make sense of their own perpetual adolescence.

Hetfield establishes that his family and home are off-limits (he not only restricts his work time to four hours a day, but also insists the other band members stop work when he does, all leading Ulrich to considerable spewing 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." (Meantime, Ulrich is selling off his paintings at Christies for some $5 million, making the Napster business seem even more niggling.)

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 about itself, about producing analysis and performing selves.

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