Judge Patrick Bromley wishes someone would make a documentary this excellent about his favorite heavy metal band: Wyld Stallyns.
The film that redefines group therapy.
A few weeks back, there was some discussion around the halls of DVD Verdict about whether or not judges should attempt to write reviews for films, the subject matter of which they have no background—or even interest—in. Should a writer with no knowledge of snowboarding be trusted to evaluate a snowboarding film? Can someone who's never heard a disco skiffle record be expected to fairly analyze a documentary about the underground disco skiffle movement?
The answer, of course, is "yes," being that we (as film critics) are evaluating whether or not the above work as movies, not if they are pitch-perfect representations of whatever the heck they're meant to represent. It's with this in mind that I come to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's 2004 documentary Metallica—Some Kind of Monster, chronicling the un-making and subsequent re-making of the legendary rock band. I have never been a fan of Metallica, though having grown up with a brother who had their music in constant rotation, I've been familiar with their music for at least two decades. That's not to say I'm anti-Metallica—just that I've never really cared one way or the other. How is it, then, that a non-fan like myself found Some Kind of Monster so funny, painful, honest, and involving? Because, regardless of their subject, Berlinger and Sinofsky have made a good film. A very good film.
Facts of the Case
Metallica (which, at the start of the film, is made up of singer-guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett, and bassist Jason Newsted), the oft-proclaimed "biggest heavy metal band of all time," undergoes a personal and professional crisis as the documentary cameras roll. That's about sums it up—and, yet, it hardly tells half the story. For more details, you'll have to read on.
The best documentaries happen by chance. Allen and Albert Maysles were simply making a Rolling Stones concert film with their classic Gimme Shelter, until the "security" by the Hell's Angels got out of control and resulted in the fatal stabbing of a spectator. Andrew Jarecki had set out to make a documentary about New York's premier birthday party clown, leading to the discovery of a family doomed by dark secrets and eventually becoming the tragic and brilliant Capturing the Friedmans.
So it is with Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger, who were hired by Metallica (having struck up a friendship with the band following their Paradise Lost films, in which the band's music plays a significant role) to do a standard promotional film for their upcoming album. At that time, the filmmakers had no idea that band member Jason Newsted would quit the band, forcing producer Bob Rock to fill in on bass duties. They did not know that Metallica would bring in Phil Towle, a kind of shrink-to-the-stars, for sessions of group therapy that would last for nearly two years—or that the making of the album itself would last that long. They did not know that that band's front man, James Hetfield, would finally face up to a substance abuse problem that ran deeper than possibly anyone knew, ultimately checking himself into a rehab facility and leaving the future of the band totally uncertain.
And yet, as I stated before, great documentaries come from unpredictable circumstances and unforeseen developments—and Metallica—Some Kind of Monster is a great documentary. Great because it goes beyond the conventions of the traditional rock doc. Unlike your average Behind the Music special, Metallica doesn't have the luxuries of retrospect and hindsight—we're watching these events as they unfold, and in the most unguarded way, these men are afraid. Afraid that their art is no longer relevant. Afraid that the success they have come to know and enjoy has come to an end. Afraid that their lives, quite simply, are unraveling.
A large part of what makes Some Kind of Monster so fascinating comes from the level of access that Berlinger and Sinofsky are given—nothing seems to have been deemed "off limits." The camera is even allowed into the band's group therapy sessions, and it is this notion that provides the movie's structural and thematic center. Once you're able to move beyond the novelty of seeing these legendary badasses—famous for rocking hard and partying even harder—speak in therapeutic rhetoric at its touchy-feeliest (which, I'll be the first to admit, is on the surface pretty amusing), you'll see these men desperately trying to heal, both individually and collectively; failure to heal would mean failure to continue as a band. Even expelled guitarist Dave Mustaine, who was kicked out of Metallica before they really hit it big, gets in on the act. Though he was able to venture out on his own and form the heavy metal outfit Megadeth, a successful band in its own right, Mustaine has never gotten over his own pain and resentment at being the guy who missed out on the Metallica Monster. His confrontation with Lars Ulrich is one of the film's highlights.
The creative dynamic behind the band is tested before the cameras as well, as, for the first time, Metallica chooses to write and record the album entirely in the studio (on previous efforts, Hetfield and Ulrich would simply dictate every part to their band mates). This examination of the creative process is almost as fascinating as the portrait of the band's healing and maturation (like it or not, Metallica is all grown up); watching the leading voice of metal music struggling to find a way to remain both creatively relevant and commercially viable—to keep the Metallica Machine (the Monster of the film's title) up and running—makes for an all too-rare glimpse into the creative process behind popular art. The music the band is seen writing is decidedly mediocre, but that doesn't matter—in fact, its mediocrity is somewhat the point. Metallica is reinventing itself, both in its sound and in its process, and that kind of reinvention doesn't come easily.
Paramount has a released a stellar two-disc set of Metallica—Some Kind of Monster, both technically accomplished and packed with extras. The film is presented in its original 4:3 full frame aspect ratio, and though much of it is compiled from a number of video sources, the image rarely falters—it's crisply detailed and bright throughout. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix is slightly more problematic (though only slightly), in that it doesn't find the ideal balance between the dialogue that drives the film and the music used to support it. When Metallica's music comes on, it's thunderous as all hell, but it's the soft-spoken musicians, not the music, that this film is about.
In addition to the presentation of the film, the first disc of the set boasts two audio commentary tracks as supplements to the movie. On one track, the four members of the new Metallica (the search for a replacement bass player is featured in the film, and I'd rather not give away his/her identity for those who aren't already aware) come together to speak about their experiences in having this personal a documentary made about their lives and careers. The talk is a letdown, though, and is the only aspect of both the movie and the DVD that most likely requires some degree of Metallica worship to allow for much enjoyment. Fans might get a kick out of the band's sporadic comments, but those of us looking for something more get frustrated by the long silences and lack of anything substantial being said. Luckily, the second commentary track by directors Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger more than makes up for it. They speak at length about how the project evolved, the process by which they collected and organized the footage, and even about their own creative and collaborative healing—the film marks a directorial reunion for the pair, following a falling-out after Berlinger struck out on his own to make the disappointing Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. Everything about the talk is entertaining, informative, and (above all else) involving—just like the film itself.
On Disc Two, the remainder of the bonus material is found, the set piece of which is an additional 40 scenes (that's right, 40) cut from the finished film. The directors were right to trim much of the material—at two hours and 20 minutes, the film runs on the long side as it is—but because so many of the scenes are just as good as what was left in, we should be thankful someone had the good sense to include them on the DVD. Some of the other supplements seem more promotional in nature: a Metallica video, footage from the film's premiere and festival runs, and some interviews with the band might appear to be more good-face publicity oriented in nature, but it goes deeper than that. The level of Metallica's involvement in the film and in the DVD not only contributes to, but also speaks volumes of, the overall quality. It's rare that a documentary this personal, this honest, and this revealing would still garner its subjects' involvement through to the finished product.
Throw away any preconceived notions you might have and give Metallica—Some Kind of Monster a well-deserved look. One's personal musical preferences shouldn't play a part; the film isn't about the music as it is about those who make it (or any art, for that matter). Who could have guessed that such an unusual combination of elements—creativity, addiction, heavy metal, and psychotherapy—could produce one of the best films of 2004?
I'm wracking my brain trying to come up with some sort of Metallica-oriented joke or song lyric to tie in here, but am—not surprisingly—coming up short. I'll just say: "NOT GUILTAAAAAAAAYYY!!!"
It's a lot cooler if you picture me doing air guitar with it.
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