If you’ve read my past reviews of Through The Never then you’ll know that I have been a fan of Metallica for a good while. They were the band that really piqued my interest in heavy metal and, in Ride The Lightning, they made what I consider to still be one of the best examples of the genre more than 30 years on from its release.
The past 15 years though have been a bit different, with the once vital and vicious band descending into something of a nostalgia act, having released only one new album in the last decade (Death Magnetic), and that being at best a re-tread of former glories, while their status as a live band has waned as well.
You could cite their collection of covers, Garage Inc., as the start of that decline, or their S&M project with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, but, in listening, both still have their merits. I would argue that the point were ‘the biggest metal band in the world’ really, for want of a better expression, ‘jumped the shark’, is the movie documenting the making of their St. Anger album, Some Kind of Monster.
Taking place over the best part of two and a half years we join the band just after they lost their long time bass player, Jason Newsted, and headed into a makeshift studio facility in San Francisco’s Presidio to, supposedly, try to recapture the spirit of the garage band they once were.
With no new songs and no permanent bass player (producer Bob Rock takes on those duties) it’s not surprising this doesn’t go well as the band demonstrate a spectacular inability to jam out any ideas without descending into arguments, largely between founders Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield.
It’s at this point that some of the limitations of the film itself begin to become evident. Obviously instigated by Metallica it is designed to tell the story they want it to tell and, to their credit, this is far from a flattering picture, but, within that, it seems to chop and change its own chronology fairly freely which, particularly with Ulrich’s hairstyles chopping and changing (colour) almost from shot to shot, means it’s hard to get a real sense of authenticity from this first act which ends with Hetfield walking out on the recording sessions and seemingly the band, to enter rehab for alcoholism and other undisclosed addictions.
During this next section, which lasts nearly a year of real-time according to the captions, we see nothing of Hetfield but get to spend time with the other two band members. In the case of guitarist Kirk Hammett this includes a few understated sequences mostly focusing on his, at the time, new hobby of surfing, which he openly admits has taken the place of other, less healthy, pass times.
The sequences with Ulrich are a rather different affair as, if he hadn’t come across too well before, we now get to see more of the man who genuinely comes across like something of a petulant child, just one in his mid-40s, including a rather cringe-worthy look at his art collection as Lars tries to explain his own reasons for making and collecting art – this could be lifted straight from Spinal Tap.
Throughout all of this there is the constant presence of ‘performance coach’ Phil Towle who, at first, seems to be trying to help the band work together, but as things go on just seems cynical and only there for personal gain, and his interactions with Ulrich serve to show possibly the worst sides of both, particularly in a sequence where Lars’ father visits and offers some less than positive feedback on the new material.
It’s also at this point that the dates involved dawned on me as having some significance. The whole process begins in mid 2001 and continues to summer 2003, a period containing some rather significant world events that, I think its fair to say, feature in pretty much any documentary film set over that time. But, in Some Kind Of Monster, they are not referenced, and nor is anything else about the outside world beyond a couple of asides about Echobrain, a new project from Newsted.
To me, this says a lot about the attitude of the band (who ultimately had final cut on the film), that they exist purely in their own world, cut off from reality with all the good and bad points that brings. Some of these are highlighted here and, in hindsight, often show the band members’ less admirable traits, though I couldn’t help but feel the band would have thought this was showing their positives, just showing their disconnected nature.
As the album continues to develop we get to see more childish behavior from both Ulrich and Hetfield, including a genuinely hilarious bout of swearing from the drummer into the face of his frontman. Then hatchets seem to be buried as the pair team up against Towle who has crossed several lines in their (and any reasonable person’s) opinion, including suggestion lyrics for the record.
I get the impression that, at this point, as a fan I was meant to side with the band against this character’s interference, and maybe once I did, but now, I just had the feeling that all three men were being generally unreasonable with the only one who had any kind of defence being Hetfield as he tried to find a new equilibrium, post rehab.
Ending on a slightly triumphant note with the album, St. Anger, finally released and the band setting off on tour, Some Kind Of Monster, as a whole, is a fascinating insight into the workings of a band at this level and the effect a lifestyle like that of Metallica who had been consistently on the tour-record-tour-etc cycle since their late teens can have one people.
This, unfortunately for Metallica, includes no one really being shown in a good light (with the exception of newly recruited bass player Rob Trujillo) while the film itself is a strange effort that has no clear directorial voice or story to tell which hampers any potential interest from anyone outside the band’s fanbase and other musicians curious about the inner workings of the band – though watching multi-millionaires argue like children is at times entertaining in a bleak kind of way.