[ Argh! The WordPress app on my iPad 2 seems to have erased the text I wrote in the airplane fresh after finishing the movie. Here is an attempt to recall the awesome article that is now gone forever 😦 ]
Some Kind of Monster is not a concert video of Metallica. In fact, the music is only a background to the real story: how Metallica survived the aftermath of Jason Newstead’s departure and James Hetfield’s stint in rehab. It is a fascinating look behind the facade of the metal giants as they allow us through Phil Towle, the band “performance enhancement coach”, into their heads. As such, it is incredible movie making because it offers a very unique portrait of rock stardom – how to deal with fame, fortune and addiction when you are entering your 40s with kids and responsibilities and a 20-year rock-n-roll legacy.
After the tour that followed Reload, Jason Newstead (bass) left the group and created a void in the group. The void quickly became a vortex of bad feelings and ego trips particularly between Lars Ulrich (drums) and James Hetfield (vocals, guitar). Kirk Hammett (lead guitar) tries to stay stoically disengaged but is clearly worried whether the band would pull it back together. Their management firm Q-Prime hired (at the incredible sum of $40k per month!!) Phil Towle to give them group therapy and try to pull them back together. There is interesting footage of Newstead’s new band Echobrain and his apparent happiness to have left Metallica. Even more interesting, Dave Mustaine – ever so briefly the lead singer/guitarist of Metallica and now frontman for Megadeath – talks ever so intimately of his pain in having been pushed out of the band 20 years hence. As for Metallica themselves, they struggle to record the enigmatic St Anger album despite James 12h->16h schedule (owning to rehab and family time) and there is a massive conflict between him and an enraged Lars who screams “Fuck!” within millimeters of James’ face (probably one of a microscopically small number of people who could do that without being pummeled by Hetfield). The tensions are very real and only assuaged by time and hard work. Another unifying moment in the film is the search for a replacement bassist. The auditions are really cool and it is clear, at least from how it was filmed, that the choice of Robert Trujillo was an excellent one as he plays the part to a T but without bringing yet another massive ego into the mix (and with a $1M signing bonus to boot!).
It was hard for me before to imagine the human beings behind the Metal Militia and now that I have, I am pretty impressed. Aside from his badass demeanor, Hetfield appears intelligent and capable of self-criticism and improvement – thus his checking himself into rehab for alcohol and other undisclosed addictions. Now, whether he stayed on the wagon, I have no idea – at least during the film, he is clean throughout. He also seems to be a good dad to his kids. [With his tattoos and motorcycles, he reminds me loads of my cousins in California] As for Kirk, he seems like such a cool, laid-back person with a beautiful ranch in northern California (yes, I am a little jealous) and a very Zen outlook on life – strange from the premier speed metal guitarist. And then there’s Lars. He seems to have a complex personality ranging from pretty decent taste in art (we see him auctioning his personal collection including a Basquiat for $5M at Christies in New York) to a sort of adolescent, punkish kid attitude at various times throwing fits. He does however, seem to also be a good dad and to have a great sense of humor. Who would have thought? I mean, these seem like guys that I’d love to sit down and throw back a few beers with in a Sonoma bar. And yet, their status as Rock Stars is huge. It makes me wonder, what would a movie filmed in this manner about U2 look like? Or Radiohead? Would these bands, whose surfaces are far less paved with violent images and hardcore music, come off as approachably human? They have been criticized by fans for outward signs of wealth (photos of Ulrich and Trujillo in an Armani shop recently), but seriously, what else would they do with the mountain of cash that Metallica has generated? I think that is one of the glaring contradictions of rock-n-roll stardom: how to remain a rebel (with all the sex, drugs and r-n-r that that implies) and yet deal with the entrapments of megabucks. You can embrace it (U2), take it in stride (the Stones), or struggle with it – and it seems to me that Metallica is in the latter case.
The album St Anger as shown in the film, is a challenging one for the listener. It is a full onslaught of noise and anger that does not let up for the entire 75 minutes. There are no guitar solos here because that’s how the band decided they would try to eliminate any egos and reconstruct themselves. During the film, we see a little tension surrounding that issue as Kirk chomps at the bit somewhat but stays the course (and avenges his position with his blistering solos on Death Magnetic). Near the end of the film, James talks about how the anger on this album was “positive”. On re-listening to St Anger after watching the film, I think I see this. Admittedly, this is not my favorite Metallica disc but on re-listening, I can see his point. Previous Metallica albums could be grossly summarized by “Die Mother Fucker Die”. This one is far more inflective and deals with the common themes of loss, pain, separation, and disillusionment but without the backlash (or perhaps Whiplash) of the previous albums. James sees the Monster within himself and tries to deal with it on his terms. I suppose that, all the controversy on the curious snares of Lars aside, that does make this album stand out a bit. Pitchfork was probably a bit cruel to give them only 0,8/10 but perhaps the reviewer didn’t see the film…
Personally, I can appreciate St Anger more than before and enjoyed all 2h30 of Some Kind of Monster. Perhaps it was a little voyeuristic and self-serving at times, but rare are such intimate portraits of rock superstars.