Rock ‘n’ roll stars of the ’70s and ’80s spent so much time building up public personas with costumes, makeup and carefully publicized hijinks that it’s amusing to see them be deconstructed before our very eyes in this, the Age of Reality. Once the fearsome Ozzy Osbourne was revealed by MTV to be nothing more than a harmless, befuddled family man, it was only a matter of time before the curtain would be pulled back on Metallica, the no-nonsense kings of heavy metal and idols of countless punk-hating, pop-hating long-haired adolescent males.
Guess what, head-bangers? For two years, your boys had a full-time therapist, but no bass player. “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” is a highly enjoyable documentary that follows the band through the departure of its bassist in January 2001 to the release of its new album “St. Anger” in 2003, with enough dysfunction and emotional blood-letting in between to fill three seasons of “Six Feet Under.” I couldn’t care less about Metallica’s music, but this documentary sure entertained me. Fans, who presumably would delight in a peek behind the scenes even if it’s disillusioning, will probably love it even more.
It is a time of soul-searching for Metallica. Bassist Jason Newsted has left, leaving the remaining members — singer/lead guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist Kirk Hammett — to contemplate their place in the world of rock, and to examine themselves.
Enter Phil Towle, a therapist and “career coach” who has worked with sports teams and other organizations that must function well privately in order to perform publicly. Phil becomes a non-playing member of the band, present at all rehearsals in addition to holding regular group-therapy sessions with the members. Metallica’s producer Bob Rock fills in as bass player in the meantime, and the group gets started on a new album.
After years of Hetfield — he of the tough-guy fu-manchu facial hair and growling singing style — writing most of the band’s material, the decision is made to produce the new album more collaboratively. Hetfield, Ulrich and Hammett sit around the studio, jamming on their instruments, improvising lyrics, and passing their ideas around. This method becomes funny after Hetfield emerges from nearly a year in rehab for his alcoholism. With a new lease on life and a fresh perspective on the world, Hetfield doesn’t exactly fit in with Metallica’s gloom-and-doom style anymore. Asked to come up with lyrics for a particular strain of music, Hammett writes the typically dark, “My lifestyle determines my deathstyle,” while Hetfield pens the more optimistic, face-the-world, “I’m tired of being afraid.”
The post-rehab Hetfield gives the film its resonance, for he exemplifies what Metallica and all other attitude-heavy rock bands face in the modern world. There is an inherent conflict between rock ‘n’ roll, which is supposed to be dangerous, rebellious and spontaneous, and responsible adulthood. Hetfield and Ulrich are both family men with wife and children waiting at home. Their days of hard partying are mostly behind them. How can people like that create the crunching, nihilistic heavy metal that fans crave? How can anyone who spends all day every day being trailed by a psychiatrist be angry enough to produce good rock music, when good rock music almost by definition must stem from raw, un-therapied emotions?
Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, both respected documentarians, capture all the angst, adventure and humor of rock stardom, and wisely don’t overplay elements like Ulrich’s anti-Napster campaign of 2002. (It’s in there, but the other stuff is so much more interesting.) They see the ironic situations, but let them speak for themselves, rather than underscoring them with clever editing or humorous voice-overs. By the time “St. Anger” is released and the film is over — a good 20 minutes later than it should have been, probably — you’ll have witnessed a curious creative process, seeing not just an album made but a group of people redefined.
B+ (2 hrs., 20 min.; )