While other artists were getting rich crooning power ballads in the ’80s, Metallica played fast and heavy, singing about war and alienation. When others wore spandex and make-up on stage, they wore jeans and T-shirts.
Now they’ve made a rock documentary that strays from the usual band-plays-grueling-tour formula and instead depicts them undergoing group therapy and constantly bickering while recording yet another hit album. When detractors said the film was too long and that it might resemble a real-life version of the cult-classic rock ’n’ roll satire This Is Spinal Tap, they trusted the filmmakers’ vision and didn’t cut any of the two-hour, 20-minute running time.
The documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is an in-depth emotional profile of three long-time friends who come close to losing their band and each other as they confront a midlife crisis.
“This film turns the rock genre on its head. Most rock documentaries deify rock stars, but this film humanizes them and puts them on the same level as us,” says co-director Joe Berlinger, who along with his partner Bruce Sinofsky, met Metallica in 1996 when the band allowed them to use their music for free in the documentary Paradise Lost.
“Therapy saved us. That’s very un-metal,” says guitarist Kirk Hammett.
The movie—which began filming in 2001 and took two years to complete—was originally meant to boost sales of Metallica’s first album of new material in six years. But on the first day of shooting, the band began group therapy after long-time bassist Jason Newsted called it quits, and the filmmakers realized they were onto something more than just a “making of the album” documentary.
“This is a film about relationships, about people in crisis,” says Sinofsky. “It just happens to be the biggest hard-rock band of all time. These guys are professing to everybody that you can learn communication, that you can learn to deal with things that have been festering for 20 years.”
With Newsted gone, the remaining band members—Hammett, singer/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich—start working on a new record with producer Bob Rock. Just as therapy starts to reveal deep rifts in the band, Hetfield enters rehab to battle alcoholism after his wife kicks him out of the house.
“We shut up for so long just to keep the ball rolling so it wouldn’t disintegrate, and finally we came to a point where we had to let it all out,” says Hetfield.
The singer returns 11 months later, but can only record four hours a day as he tries to spend more time with his wife and three children.
“Going to therapy on its own is tough enough, but inviting a camera …” mused Hetfield when asked why the band allowed so much intrusion into their professional and private lives. “Why did we do it? Metallica is always open for challenges. It was a mirror to see ourselves in, and once we started, we couldn’t stop. The more the cameras were there, the more we became real with each other and it became a truth serum.”
“When James went into rehab, it felt like we might lose him and Metallica might not be what it ever was,” said Hammett, who acts as a buffer between a sulking and intractable Ulrich and a controlling Hetfield. Hammett gets some help from producer Bob Rock, who throughout the film balances the artistic egos of Ulrich and Hetfield and manages to turn average riffs into powerful, penetrating songs.
The band gradually rediscovers its love for aggressive music, but not before Ulrich and Hetfield air their grievances in some of the most emotional and potentially embarrassing moments in the film.
“We decided that we were going to be as accessible as possible,” says Ulrich. “In the wake of that, we’re setting ourselves up for criticism, but we don’t think much about things like image.”
Some critics said that a section featuring Ulrich selling his collection of modern paintings at the Christie’s auction house for millions of dollars does not belong in the film as it has nothing to do with Metallica and just seems to underline the band’s fabulous wealth and their being out of touch with every day life, but the drummer disagrees.
“I wanted this film to really go into who we were, and that is a big part of me,” Ulrich says. “Some people might find it odd, some might even find it distasteful, but art has been my great escape and my great passion, that’s where I go when I’m not with my family and I’m not with Metallica.”
In the end, they complete their album, St. Anger, which goes on to sell more than 1.5 million copies in the United States. They recruit new bassist Robert Trujillo, credit therapist Phil Towle for saving the band from breaking up, and go on a sold-out world tour.
“We have the best relationship we’ve ever had,” Ulrich says. “We’re psyched that people still give a shit.”
For his part, the imposing and impenetrable Hetfield is now a changed and sober man.
“You go from being a completely one-man show to being a father of three kids and having a wife, plus doing your job,” he says. “It’s tough to adjust at times, but I’m not resorting to the drink. I know there are other ways of filling that hole of connecting with people, and music is certainly a gift. I found that the real reason I’m out on the road is connecting with people and enjoying that two-and-a-half hours that we’re on the stage.”