It started innocently enough: filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger (the "Paradise Lost" documentaries) were called in to document Metallica's (singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, and guitarist Kirk Hammett) return to the studio to record their new album, which would eventually become 2003's "St. Anger." The studio time was booked, the equipment set up, and the filmmakers were ready to capture the creative process. But the band was a mess, having just lost longtime bassist Jason Newsted, and internal friction had heated up to such a degree that the presence of Phil Towle, a $40,000-a-month psychologist and "life coach," was necessary to assist band communication and focus. What was intended as mere months in the studio became more than two years of footage. "Some Kind of Monster" (IMDb listing) chronicles this difficult journey.
The film opens in 2001 with Metallica fractured into little pieces due to the loss of their bass player over artistic differences, as well as their own fatigue from being one of the biggest bands in music history. As they enter The Presidio, a former San Francisco military outpost, to record, the mood is grim and interpersonal feelings are hostile. The band manages to bang out some songs, but the vibe isn't right, and because of the newly introduced therapy session, the band members walk on eggshells with each other, attempting to communicate their feelings through their new vocabulary of "I'm OK, you're OK" psychological babbling. It's apparent right away that Sinofsky and Berlinger are not going to be capturing a simple episode of "Behind the Music," or even the fluffy, frat-boy fun overtones of Metallica's own stabs at previous documentaries.
"Monster" depicts a time in the band's life where the pieces of fame, friendship, and musicianship are breaking up, with Towle and producer (and temp bassist) Bob Rock holding Hetfield, Ulrich, and Hammett together so they can create one more album. The camera watches as the trio scrap with each other, each seemingly loathing their new therapeutic angle of communication, but respecting the results it brings. Unexpectedly, "Monster" also sheds some light on Hetfield and Ulrich's parenting skills, allowing their kids to be around the recording sessions, and it includes a terrific scene showing Hetfield attending his daughter's ballet recital.
Months into recording, Hetfield, tired of the band dynamic and his own crippling problems, takes off for rehab, leaving the rest of the team in a lurch for almost a year. This second act of down-time without Hetfield begins to probe where Lars Ulrich is coming from, as he's considered to be the most publicly hated member of the band due to decades of unfettered ego and his attempts to shut down file-sharing computer program Napster over claims of song theft. The audience meets Ulrich's eccentric father, who openly criticizes his son's music, driving Lars up the wall. We see the frustration of the drummer watching his beloved band slowly erode; coming to terms with a break-up that is potentially on the horizon. Finally, in the film's most revelatory moment, former guitarist (and Megadeth frontman) Dave Mustaine is called into Ulrich's therapy session to vent his own feelings of anger, regret, and resentment for having been tossed out of the band for drunken behavior back in 1982 (this coming from a band who were commonly referred to as "Alcoholica"). For Metallica fans, this moment is incredible, providing some much need circle closing for the two participants. For the rest of the audience, the scene is indicative of the entire film, which is fearless in displaying the emotional abyss the band is facing, using unbelievable access to capture these moments of the rock gods on their knees begging for emotional clarity and forgiveness.
Eventually, Hetfield returns and the band goes back to work. But restraints on the creative process due to Hetfield's rehabilitation rules threaten to topple Metallica once again. The reemergence of Hetfield as a clean living, introspective person is fascinating, and the filmmakers make sure to remind the audience of what his life was like pre-rehab, through archival footage of a beer-swilling singer, shoulder-deep in anger and control issues. The new, cautious Hetfield almost seems like a robot in comparison. It's interesting to see the two sides constantly at war with each other throughout the film.
And Kirk Hammett? An integral part of the band since the "Kill 'Em All" years, the free-spirited, new age-ish Hammett has learned how to survive under the thumb of Hetfield and Ulrich, either keeping his nose out of their business, or desperately trying to play peacemaker as he walks carefully through the minefields the years have planted in the band's dynamic. His best moment comes when Rock suggests that Hammett's complicated guitar solos should take back seat for the new album, which a panicked Hammett quickly tries to justify, fearing his only thread to the Metallica sound will be cut loose and he will be forced out like Newsted was.
The final thread that Sinofsky and Berlinger weave throughout the film is the presence of Towle, who comes close to rivaling Eugene Landy in his attempts to latch on to this sugardaddy of a band. At first, Towle is a necessity for communication, dragging honesty and respectful tones out of the band members. But as soon as Hetfield takes it upon himself to clean up his act, Towle's role becomes obsolete, which he refuses to recognize, even going so far as to make plans to move out from Kansas to the Metallica headquarters in San Francisco to permanently set up shop. Scary stuff. The filmmakers slyly showcase the argument against Towle's involvement throughout the film, ending with Hetfield's not-so-joking questioning of the therapist's desire to join the band.
After a star-studded search for a bass replacement, Metallica settled on former Ozzy Osbourne band member Robert Trujillo. The frog-stomping, slightly bewildered musician brings a joy and dynamism back into the band's music, which was lost almost a decade ago. Coming as a former die-hard fan of Metallica, "Some Kind of Monster" reminded me just how special a group this is. It also brings an essential understanding and perspective to the previously disregarded "St. Anger" album. As an aficionado, this is an incredible, and incredibly honest, look at band mechanics, and a portrait of psychological unrest that many musical acts wouldn't dare make available to their fans. But "Some Kind of Monster" will also appeal to the non-fans through the sheer energy of conflict and the humanization of rock stars. It's a long journey (140 minutes), but riveting to the last frame.
Filmfodder Grade: A