A correction was made to this review on Jan. 22, 2004.
No rock band of remotely comparable commercial stature has opened their internal processes up to the kind of scrutiny allowed in “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.” Chronicling a two-year period riddled with crises that cast the hugely popular outfit’s future in doubt — amid all-too-public speculation — docu reps another case where filmmaking duo Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky get discomfiting close to their subjects over a long haul. Pic itself is a long haul, at nearly 2½ hours; yet one needn’t be a fan of Metallica or heavy metal to be engrossed throughout. Limited theatrical prospects look upbeat, ancillary sales excellent.
Much of the tale will already be familiar to music fans (several excerpts from “MTV News” demonstrate how widely all the bad news traveled), but watching it actually unfold is something else. In early 2001 longtime bassist Jason Newsted quit Metallica, citing cumulative “physical damage” (band has been nicknamed “Alcoholica”) as well as other members’ unwillingness to let him pursue side projects. Remaining trio’s morale was at an all-time low when they subsequently entered a studio in San Francisco to record their first album of original material in several years.
With returning producer Bob Rock filling in on bass, disc was designed to juice the creative process by having all four participants collaborate equally — whereas before founding members James Hetfield (guitar, vocals) and Lars Ulrich (drums) had basically written the songs and called the shots.
Initially exhilarating, this new tact soon renders various personalities by turns moody, competitive, insecure and uninspired.
The group hires (at $40,000 a month) the services of Phil Towle, a therapist and “performance enhancement coach.” Though his psychobabbling occasionally irks them, Towle is duly credited by band members as being a huge help. Months later, however, they begin to find him presumptuous and grasping, unwilling to accept his job is done.
Meanwhile, there are more serious problems to deal with. Volatile Hetfield abruptly vanishes, checking into a rehab facility and cutting off nearly all communication. Nearly a year passes before he returns, acting much more grounded but also bringing to the table a slew of self-protective “boundaries” — notably demand for strict four-hour work days — that enrage Ulrich. For a while, the two can barely stand to be in the same room.
Then there’s the public relations disaster of Ulrich’s campaign against free-music-downloading system Napster, which came off like a rich rock star begrudging his loyal audience.
Things eventually turn around, with an MTV “Icon” tribute program, album release and world tour (with punk veteran Robert Trujillo as bona-fide new permanent bassist) signaling final triumph.
Pic’s intimate focus doesn’t stretch to include any viewpoints outside band’s innermost circle(and doesn’t note the less-than-stellar critical reception accorded LP “St. Anger”). Included is commentary from the semi-estranged Newsted, plus an unpleasant hash-settling reunion between Ulrich and Dave Mustaine, the lead guitarist Lars and James fired in ’83.
Warts-and-all portrait at times exposes more artist insecurity than one might want to know about, but in the end, everyone — with the exception of Towle, who wears out his welcome with the viewer just as he does the band — emerges as sympathetic.
All three official band members are now husbands and fathers, roles they’re learning to prioritize after years of rock star excess. Interesting side trips include seeing Ulrich with his Rip Van Winkle-looking father — his most feared critic, and quite a harsh one — as well as the auctioning off of his modern art collection, which nets millions in one afternoon. Bassist audition process is also charted in some detail.
Pic doesn’t provide an overview of Metallica’s near quarter-century history, nor does it showcase concert sequences, though archival clips tip the hat to both (including ’86 bus-accident death of prior bassist Cliff Burton), fleetingly.
Instead, focus stays firmly backstage. Berlinger and Sinofsky (“Brother’s Keeper,” “Paradise Lost”) don’t excuse themselves from the drama — at several points principals question whether having a film crew present at all times is really in their own best interest. (Fortunately for us, they made what was probably the wrong decision, psychologically speaking.)
Tech contribs are first-rate down the line.