Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 29, 2004 11:29 pm 
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Is there rock after rehab?

Being the most famous and popular of heavy metal bands, with 90 million albums sold over the past 20 years, Metallica has not exactly gone unchronicled, uninterviewed, or unfilmed. The 1992 A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, which covered the making of the huge “Black Album” and the band on tour, included a lot of traumas, a lot of talk, a lot of spine-tingling, brain-damaging music -- and was four sometimes numbing but compulsively watchable hours long.

Metallica: Some King of Monster, commissioned by the band, which weighs in at a mere two-and-a-half hours, may have set out to be the same kind of thing. It begins with a new, minimal studio set up in the San Francisco Presidio for the group to start recording after a long dry period, and it looked like it was going to be another album-plus-tour documentary.

Metallica is the quintessential primal scream rock band, whose throbbing, doom-ridden songs sound powerful enough on recordings, but played for an audience of a hundred thousand standing and shouting in unison take on the quality of absolutely cosmic. . .throbbing. . .noise. But this aspect of the band is only glimpsed in the new documentary because it turns out to contain more therapy and less music than any rock doc you've ever seen before. Some Kind of Monster is chiefly valuable for the insights it provides into the zillion-dollar band’s tormented but ultimately self-healing group dynamic. The music doesn't seem to matter much any more, not in this film anyway.

Once the new studio is set up Danish-born drummer and bandleader Lars Ulrich and lead vocalist and songwriter James Hetfield (the band's founders) are immediately locking horns. As the earlier doc (A Year in the Life) shows, it’s not the first time, but at this late stage in their career their creativity seems blocked by the hostilities. A fancy group therapist from Kansas City named Phil is called in, a guy who’s previously been hired to reconcile the giant battling egos, we’re told, of baseball superstars. The band pays Phil $40,000 a month for many months for his pains. The presence of Phil seems to trigger an awareness in James that he isn’t enjoying the band, or his life, any more, and the solution is that he needs to get off the sauce. He disappears and goes into rehab at an “undisclosed location.” Only the lead guitarist, Kirk Hammett, remains in touch with James, who stays away for a solid year. Kirk may be peaceful – he’s usually neutral in the ego clashes of James and Lars -- but he has a sensitive, suffering face and he too briefly spars with the often bossy, irritating Lars -- over whether or not he can solo.

Kirk says he has labored to shrink his ego. He has taken up surfing and given up drugs and alcohol to surf better. We see him enjoying the peace of his ranch in northern California. Lars, on the other hand, likes to unwind in those nasty little pocket speedboats, and his awesome house is full of great modern paintings including a splendid Basquiat, a Pollack and a number of Dubuffets. Later he sells the key paintings toward making a “new start” (what that means isn’t spelled out) and these gems sell for $5 million at Christie’s.

During the enforced down time of James’s absence there are demons for Lars to wrestle with. Jason Newsted, who came in to replace the band’s much lamented original bassist Cliff Burton after his tragic death at twenty-four and was with Metallica for fourteen years, has just left over an exclusivity conflict, and his smaller band turns out to be active and popular, while Metallica is dormant, perhaps moribund. Lars’s ego sinks to near zero. The band wins its lawsuit against Napster for allowing free downloads of their songs, and the result is a backlash of group album burnings by outraged fans that makes Lars declare himself “the most hated rock musician in the world.” We get a glimpse of Lars’ interesting, feisty father, a former tennis star with a long gray beard, who for a moment seems as intrusive (and pretentious) as Yoko Ono with the Beatles. But father and son have a good relationship, as the touchy-feely Phil points out, while James’s parents split when he was small and his mom died when he was sixteen.

James’s return is a huge relief and the first studio sessions are a brief second honeymoon. A rough period follows and the doubts about whether this is still a band return. Lars is angry at how James has dominated the band passively by his absence and now in recovery insists on working only from noon to four. Lars takes a while to stop sulking. Eventually the musicians get back in “the zone” -- though therapist Phil’s use of that term is unpopular with the guys and as much as they’ve relied on him as a shaman and father figure, they decide to phase him out – a process he does not adjust to easily. Who would want to give up $40,000 a week for being in the room?

They audition for a new bassist, and Lars, James, and Kirk are unanimous in liking Ozzy Osbourne’s goofy, gnarly giant Robert Trujillo, and give him a million-dollar welcome bonus. With a group so swimming in money as Metallica, it almost seems chump change.

When the album’s done the ever-talkative Lars says “we’ve proven that you can make aggressive music without negative energy.” The footage contains many cathartic, healing moments among the members. The band had always eschewed tights and stuff like that and just dressed like any band. Now they appear convinced that their music doesn’t need inner darkness, drugs or booze to engender macho power. Is that true? The members of Metallica do seem healthier and clearer. James’s recovery has been contagious. But flashback clips show that in James’s earliest boozer days, with original bassist Burton, the two tall virtuosos with their sweeping hanks of hair had a youthful shock of aggressive energy these forty-somethings couldn’t hope to muster – and neither Lars nor Kirk were ever anything but softies anyway. Especially for heavy metal bands, the darkness -- not to mention the immaturity -- seems an essential element.

With James in recovery, it may be no surprise that the "St. Anger" album bombed with critics. But this film doesn't mention that fact. It doesn't mention a lot of things. It's just about what happens in the studio or in public appearances. It covers some painful, revealing moments, but doesn't show anything about the musicians' private lives or the other people they work with and live with, except for a couple glimpses of James's and Lars's cute little kids.

A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica probably told us more about Lars, to a fault, as well as about the recording process. Some Kind of Monster focuses on James Hetfield. But the seamlessly edited new film is just another case of competent documentarians who got a little lucky. It’s basically a promo film, and not the masterpiece that some are claiming, though it may be better than the "St. Anger" album it’s about.

©Chris Knip 2004

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