Fame is a funny thing. For anyone who has spent their life in pursuit of its glamorous conceits, it is a hypnotic, horrifying drug. No one really understands it until they get it, and the stories of being unable to cope with it once it arrives far outweigh the tales of individuals easily managing their eminence. The reason for popularity's pitfalls is rather obvious. Usually, renown is based on opinion and personal proclivity, not the most consistent or constant of foundational elements. Celebrity is also a contest, a game between ranked participants for the public's eyes and ears, or the camera's lens. Whoever gets the multitude of recognition and handles it the best seems to end up on top or at least somewhere close by. But perhaps the most damaging part of notoriety is the notion that it is really all just a pop culture conspiracy, a social setup in which there are dozens of unwritten and poorly described rules, and if you can't find a way to play by or obey them, you're destined for a steep downward spiral into obscurity.
For Metallica, perhaps the only band from the early 80s thrash metal scene to make it, integrity and artistry intact, through two decades of changing musical and personnel tastes, fame was initially on their side. They catered to it when necessary, avoided when need be, and never seemed to care if it came back once dismissed, or died off once it was alive and pumping. But somewhere along the line, in between the sex and the drugs, the groupies and the rock and roll, Metallica lost their way. For guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, drummer Lars Ulrich and bassist Jason Newsted (later replaced by Rob Trujillo), superstardom became a curse, then a vice, then a horrible homunculus, sitting in a darkened corner, sharpening its fangs. And just like most people, unaware of hero worship's evil side, the band simply sat back and waited for it to strike.
And it attacked with a vengeance. Within the span of 18 months, the group went from a four piece, to a three piece, and then an almost two piece, as one member quit, another disappeared to battle his overpowering personal demons. And all the while, the ever-increasing pressure of the marketing machine called for something to feed the prominence parking meter. Amazingly enough, all this soul searching and scarring was captured by award winning filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky who had been hired to shoot some minor promo footage of the group at work. However, they walked into the world of Metallica to witness the band battling creatures both imaginary and self-shaped. The group was decomposing, and some kind of monster was at fault. The amazing documentary that resulted, new to DVD from Paramount, lets us witness the war firsthand, and see both the conquests, and the casualties of this intensely personal struggle. It is reality entertainment at its most raw and terrifying.
At first, it didn't seem like such a major problem. After 15 years with the group, countless albums and tours, and as much money as any human being could want, bassist Jason Newsted was leaving Metallica, the biggest rock and roll band in the world. Newsted wanted to focus some of his downtime from the super group on a side project, a band called Echo Brain. Apparently, the idea didn't sit to well with lead guitarist James Hetfield, and after lots of tension and several misunderstandings, an "amicable" parting of the ways took place. Metallica had been there before. They would survive.
However, heading into the studio to work on original material for the first time in nearly three years, Metallica seemed rudderless. Guitarist and lead singer James Hetfield was defiant and directionless. Drummer Lars Ulrich, always a stickler for control and focus, became shrill and stubborn. Stuck in the middle without much of a voice in the chaos all around him, lead axeman Kirk Hammett just became more and more disconnected. By the time producer Bob Rock got the band to start writing and recording, a therapist named Phil Towle had been hired (at $40K a MONTH!) to help the guys work out their problems. There appeared to be progress music was finally being made...
Then Hetfield checked himself into rehab for his uncontrollable addiction to alcohol. He had minimal contact with his bandmates for over six months, then a year. Sessions were cancelled, plans scuttled. Suddenly, it looked like the biggest rock act of the last 20 years was about to crash and burn from the inside out.
Some Kind of Monster is a warts and all ride through rock and roll Hell. It's the art of falling apart without the keys to put things back together again. It's a therapy session built out of head-banging tunes, and it's the inability to age graceful fueled by ego and enterprise. Telling perhaps the most prescient story of how fame and fortune can fuck up even the most noble of intentions, this amazing movie chronicles the final, flailing growth spurt by a band dogged in arrested adolescence. At the end of the voyage, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger have created what has to be one of the best, most mesmerizing documentaries of the last ten years. As they did with their stellar Brother's Keeper (1992) and Paradise Lost (1995) the duo find a subject few had even considered in this case, the movement of the metal act Metallica into the new millennium - and discover the real story behind the simple set-up. Part confessional, part crass cry for attention, this perfect example of what fact based filmmaking can and should be is cinema at its most immediate, gratifying and gut wrenching.
Like Morpheus' offer to Thomas Anderson, Some Kind of Monster is the red pill, a catalyst for keeping us in the Wonderland of Metallica, only to learn how deep the rabbit hole actually goes. Naturally, looking from the far outside in, anyone would salivate endlessly to be in Lars, Kirk, James, or even Jason's shoes. From their earliest days to their defining moments as pop cultures reigning rulers of rock (1991's Black Album) Metallica was setting trends, avoiding clichιs, riding the lightening and killing them all. Their take no prisoners, no holds barred approach to the world of music won them numerous converts when rock radio was ignoring them, and kept them with their honor mostly intact when the mainstream masses discovered and embraced them. Rich, powerful and influential, but with a tight connection to their fans, Metallica appeared to have it all. But according to Some Kind of Monster, there was a kind of cruel beast waiting in the wings, a conglomerate of demons slinking toward the studio door, waiting to be born.
Some Kind of Monster is the proof in all the proverbs, showing that money can't buy you happiness, virtue is not its own reward and no one really does get out of here meaning the business of show alive. Fame, as illustrated all throughout this film, is a horrible, multi-headed dragon ready to totally consume the life of any artist. It stifles creativity, throws up juggernauts of business barriers and more or less whittles away at personal relationships until the real reason the individual members of a group came together in the first place namely to play music is lost in a continuing corporate shuffle of meetings, memos and mission statements.
The reason this movie is so fascinating, so instantly accessible and genuinely moving is the ballsy, brilliant filmmaking of Berlinger and Sinofsky. Combining both a 'you are there' atmosphere of eavesdropping with a genius way of creating a mosaic of meaningful sequences, these directors have the unique ability to find just the right moment to highlight an entire undercurrent of ideas, an intuition that seems to coincide with an audience's desire to know and see more. This is not just some behind the scenes story of the band (VH1 has beaten that deceased pony enough times with their constant rebroadcasts of the classic Behind the Music episodes featuring the group) and most intimates know their jaded, journeyman rise to the top better than perhaps the members themselves do. So if you want gossip about what James or Kirk is like outside the limelight (we catch a couple of quick glimpses James loves to hunt and drive fast, Kirk is more spiritually inspired and enjoys spending time on his ranch) or need to know the facts about Lars and his European upbringing, Some Kind of Monster demands you look elsewhere.
The filmmakers also know that there will be fans, both casual and diehard, who will want to see something that the standard media machine has only hinted at or skirted around. Right from the beginning, Some Kind of Monster goes for the throat, and it hardly lets up. Jason Newsted's departure sets the wheels in motion, and the reasons and rationale for his leaving are never really made abundantly clear (the nearly two hours of deleted material adds more insight into this issue), but we get to hear all sides of the circumstance, as awkward and as ambiguous as they are. The long rumored rift between Lars and James is also opened up, as the first few therapy sessions air out the dirty, diseased laundry that has long fueled the band's bravado and creativity. Actual fears of failure and a lack of fun are also discussed, sounding more like a wistful desire to reclaim past power than a midlife crisis bitch fest.
And just when you think things couldn't get more intimate, Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine (an original member of Metallica, notorious for being unceremoniously booted out of the band in 1983) steps in to discuss, face to face with Lars, how hard it has been to live in the shadows of his former band's success (and how fans love to ridicule his replacement). From the entire Napster debacle (which actually inspires some lyrics on the new album), to the questions about how and better yet, with who to replace Newsted, the challenges facing Metallica make Some Kind of Monster deeper than just a band going through basic group therapy sessions.
But perhaps no bigger pitfall faces the band than growing old gracefully while still being a force in music. Most major rock and roll bands can only manage to survive a couple of years, yet Metallica was pushing a couple of DECADES when Some Kind of Monster was conceived (it was just meant to be a few behind the scenes clips of the band creating the album St. Anger). They had literally rewritten the parameters of power metal, taking all the best aspects of thrash, the rising rawness of European bands, the intricacy of the dinosaur days of prog and the internal rage of a reckless misspent youth in middle class California to form a sound that was both aggressive and intricate, fierce but finely honed. But when their '96 and '97 albums Load and Reload, respectively were met with more head scratching than banging, the band was determined to reconnect somehow.
So they entered the studio without demos, without clear ideas or concrete concepts. They vowed to work together, writing and creating as a whole. There was no longer an Ulrich/Hetfield lock on all the imagination and band direction, nor would a reliance on stock rock sounds or new fangled fads be tolerated. But just like anytime you deconstruct something without really understanding how it came to be created in the first place, Metallica found this unbound band dynamic more stifling than stirring. And in many ways the task was far too monumental to be practical. It had taken them nearly 20 years to make the idea of Metallica what it was. To try and retool or redirect it in the span of two years/one album seemed foolish and just a tad arrogant.
The resulting tension, the meltdown of both mind and spirit is at the heart of Some Kind of Monster. When faced with the fact that they had no bass player, no real direction, none of the previous crutches, and a complete lack of faith that they could pull off this reconfiguration, it's not surprising to see how close the group came to calling it quits. Indeed what may shock audiences most in this movie are not the breakdowns and confessions, tirades or melodramatics, but the reality of legendary rock icons on the verge of complete and utter collapse. It is hard to view these titans, these menacing men capable of commanding an arena filled with tens of thousands, reduced to tears or random ranting. Most of the time, as tempers flare and emotions ebb, you don't hear outright attacks or personality clashes. What you witness are individuals lost people who've played at being one version of the archetypal rock and roll rebels for so long that they've literally forgotten who they are, or once were.
For some, the situation is something to run from (for all his forced showboating, Lars seems the most apprehensive about change) while others embrace it, whatever the consequences or career casualties. As a primer to why bands at the peak of their powers disintegrate, or a visual definition of the catch-all break up excuse "artistic differences", Some Kind of Monster is mesmerizing because it allows us to see how music is truly made: not via all the jam sessions and failed experiments (though that is there too) but through the depths one must chart inside one's own soul to create something truly remarkable and memorable. It's not amazing that Metallica would fall out over such an idea. The astonishing thing is that they found a way out of it.
As individuals, the members of Metallica are fascinating, each one a Freudian case study in lofty ambitions mutated by far too much wish fulfillment. While they have always appeared to be down to earth, men of the people, their image underwent a decided decline in the late 90s. From the appearance of anti-metal sentiments and the embracing of alternative ideals during the Load/Reload days, to the calculated misstep of suing Napster for illegal file sharing, the working class Joes who just wanted to get drunk, play loud and party 'til the sun came up were suddenly subsumed by a cold corporate entity, an all business and no bullshit attitude that seemed to further alienate the fan base.
What Some Kind of Monster illustrates flawlessly is how the group finally came to realize this fiendish facet of their public persona. You see them struggle with it, arguing over the purpose behind certain commitments and obligations, as well as wondering why all their creativity has to be channeled through a trusted, but definitely outside, element. In many ways, this movie is a chance for Metallica to reclaim some of their soul, to strip away the trappings of being the biggest heavy metal band in the history of the genre and simply get back to the roots of rock and roll.
Perhaps the two unsung heroes of this entire enterprise, aside from the filmmakers, are therapist Phil Towle and producer Bob Rock. Though he comes across as a combination of concerned caregiver and shameless self-promoter, Dr. Towle has a carefully crafted role as both an opportunist and catalyst for these most renowned of clients. There is a borderline abuse aspect to his access and input, an unsettling Dr. Eugene Landry/Brian Wilson vibe that hovers in the air. You keep waiting for the moment when this Dr. Phil steps forward and proclaims that he alone saved Metallica. Thankfully, if such a moment does exist, Berlinger and Sinofsky have left it on the cutting room floor. Bob Rock's long standing association with the band, on the other hand, makes his advice and concerns sound genuine, and not like standard psychobabble. Rock's role is more under the radar, as a source of strength and a sounding board, a sometimes sharp tongue and sideline referee for many of the more heated moments. Yet it is clear throughout Some Kind of Monster that both men are responsible for Metallica making it through this time. Towle will take the beating for being the most intrusive. Rock will always be seen as the dude who picked up the bass as the band struggled to make music again.
Not so much a story of survival as the rediscovering of the will to live, Some Kind of Monster is destined to be a classic, the kind of cinema vιritι exploration of a singular subject that will stand as a testament of its time and its purpose. Thanks to the openness of the members of Metallica, the unrestrained access they granted, the depth of the emotions and issues being dealt with, and Berlinger and Sinosky's way with a lens, we are forced to confront our own notions of hero worship and what causes our favored stars to suddenly destabilize and implode.
Several times throughout the running time of this extraordinary movie, the demands of fans and the pressure that it puts on performers enters your head, causing you to wonder - how much of James' insecurity comes from his 20 year battles with Lars, and how much comes from the knowledge that aficionados of his muse expect him to top himself with each successive record? How much of the internal tension was a direct result of the "F the rich pricks" attitude that erupted when the group sued Napster. Do the taunts thrown at Dave Mustaine or the sour grapes griping of Newsted translate into actual elements of pain for the band? Or maybe, Metallica's time was over, and the band just couldn't see it.
You can't imagine that these issues don't matter. You can't assume that someone who makes their living off their imagination doesn't experience doubts so deep that they can't see the creative light in front of them. What Some Kind of Monster gives us is just how tough an art-bound life can be. Sure, the fame is fine, and the money a more than fortunate afterthought. But a band like Metallica just doesn't entertain people it moves them. It changes their lives and alters their perceptions. What the band stands for and the sounds that they make strike a chord so deep that when any hint of hypocrisy or insincerity arises, the pain is instant, the betrayal severe. For decades, Metallica road the rails of goodwill, and carefully created the aura of accessibility and authenticity.
But somewhere along the line, as the band aged and matured, some kind of monster came along. Call it ego. Call it alcohol. Call it immaturity. Whatever you want to name it, this fiend stepped in and nearly decimated a group and its grassroots support. Metallica tried, but they could not tame the creature alone. And thanks to this benchmark motion picture by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, we were allowed in to watch them try to find it and stab it with their steely knives. They didn't quite kill the beast, but its presence it now so minor as to not matter. Funny thing is Metallica is no different than anyone else. Into all of our lives, some manner of demon wanders in and sets up shop. How we chose to deal with it says a great deal about who we are. It also makes for one of the best movies of the year.
Some Kind of Monster represents a kind of milestone for Berlinger and Sinofsky. While all of their previous documentaries were captured on film, this movie was shot entirely on digital. The results have both an immediacy and an authenticity that would have been missing with a straight forward feature look. Offered in a full frame 1.33:1 transfer that is crisp, detailed and incredibly clear, the reliance on the new technology accents the audience's insider's view of Metallica perfectly. The cinematography is controlled, never once allowing the image to bleed, flare or ghost, and the balance between lights and darks is exceptional. While the 4X3 aspect ratio guarantees a less dramatic aesthetic for framing and composition, the visual attributes of Some Kind of Monster are amazing.
Far surpassing the superlative image is the mind-blowing sound mix. Presented in either fantastic Dolby Digital Stereo or even more astounding Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, the aural offering here is just flawless. The band is easy to understand, their conversations and arguments captured with crystal clarity. The music, though, radiates from the speakers like a nuclear power plant about to meltdown, with guitars crunching and scraping over the bombastic throb of the drums and bass. Metallica has never sounded so powerful or potent as they do on this DVD, and it's a tribute to Some Kind of Monster's auditory elements that we witness such sonic bliss.
Paramount's extravagant, two disc DVD edition of Some Kind of Monster proves that the usually stingy added content creators can truly overload a digital presentation when they want to. The material here is all amazing. It is mandatory viewing as both a compliment and a contextual component to the film. First up on Disc 1 are a couple of commentary tracks. The first features the band (James, Lars, Kirk and newest member, bassist Robert Trujillo are all present), the second track features Berlinger and Sinofsky. Metallica is mostly silent during their discussion, accenting the film only when they feel inspired. They discuss the tensions that arose when James returned from rehab. They marvel at how powerful the Dave Mustaine sequence plays in the film, and laugh at the dynamic between Lars and his father. Sparse, peppered with self-deprecating humor, and only occasionally as confessional as the film, it's a shame that the group isn't more open here. Yet it's still entertaining to hear what gets them excited and engaged (they all go into "Dad" mode when, during the film, James visits his daughter's ballet class).
On the other hand, our filmmakers are regular magpies, spewing out countless bits of trivia and insight into how the movie was made, and the adventures that they faced along the way. Berlinger and Sinofsky point out the multiple occasions where the plug was almost pulled, how James reacted to their presence once he returned from rehab and how close they've grown to the guys since making the movie. Some of the more startling tidbits revolve around Dave Mustaine's reaction to the film (very interesting, considering how well he comes off in it), the connection between Metallica and the duo's documentary Paradise Lost, and how the entire Napster issue was approached. To give away any more would be unfair to both the film and to this pair's in-depth analysis of same. Like a reference source for an important work, the alternative narrative track by Berlinger and Sinofsky to Some Kind of Monster is required listening.
Disc Two is made up largely of deleted scenes, press conferences and post-screening Q&As. But instead of just cutting room fodder and pointless publicity puff pieces, there is real meat in these additional treats. Running nearly two hours, the amazing leftover moments from the film are like seeing a series of subplots left out of a novel. The situation with ex-bassist Jason Newsted is expanded upon, the band's work on a Ramones tribute album and an impromptu concert at an Oakland Raiders football game are highlighted, and a trip back to Copenhagen give us, and Lars, a chance to reconnect with his roots. There is some solo footage with Rob Trujillo, added arguments and frivolity, and a real feeling of seeing all sides of this story. Most of these scenes are accompanied by commentary by Berlinger and Sinofsky, and their discussions usually focus on why these segments failed to make the final cut. About the only downside to this wealth of wonders is the lack of a "Play All" feature. You literally have to click through all the snippets (found in two separate menus, mind you) to see all the substance therein.
The press conference and screening material is also enlightening. While there is a tendency to repeat answers and tell the same anecdotes, the chance to hear the band and the filmmakers one-on-one with an audience and/or the press makes for a fascinating aspect of this DVD release. Disc 2 also gives us a music video for Some Kind of Monster, as well as bios on each filmmaker. But out of all of the information and images presented here, none are more refreshing, or reaffirming, than some intimate interviews with the group while on tour. Having since seen the film and had time to reflect on it, each member offers his take on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the entire experience. Astounding to listen to in many ways, it wraps up this project perfectly.
So the question really becomes what, or who, is the monster? Is it James, the defiant drunk who basically dragged the band through his own personal Hell while he tried to find his way out and into sobriety? Was it Lars, who championed and cheered for the group dynamic for so long that he forgot that any band is made up of people first, components second? Is it the big business corporate behemoth of modern day rock and roll, requiring these mere mortals to constantly come up with ways to keep the bottom line from sinking too far? Perhaps it's the fans, who place too much of themselves and their identity into their love of a bunch of heavy metal musicians. Or maybe it's age, the constant movement of time that eats away at the fun and freshness of making art for a living.
The actual answer is the one unavoidable facet of stardom and celebrity. The monster haunting Metallica is fame, that omnipresent ogre that alters the life and strips away the security. It challenges the status quo as it creates a new stagnant state of affairs. It promises much and over-delivers on each guarantee. It smothers as it celebrates, helping and hindering all attempts at autonomy and self-actualization. Only problem is, for the band to stay solid, to actually have the opportunity to make music and be paid for it, the baneful bitch goddess fame must be served. Throughout the course of Some Kind of Monster, we witness a bunch of men combating the cruelest aspects of the cult of personality. And the result is something both terrifying and timeless. Berlinger and Sinofsky have made some kind of epic. But Metallica conquered their monster. Many don't. Here's hoping it's the end of the war, and not just a momentary victory.
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