Berlinger and Sinofsky's film began as a simple record label-financed project to help promote the band's new record, yet soon morphed into a marathon three-year venture as the group - reeling from the departure of its long-time bassist Jason Newsted, and with the remaining members struggling to cope with newfound adult responsibilities and long-held bad habits - began to fray at the edges. Forced to attend group sessions with therapist-to-the-stars Phil Towle after Newsted's sudden exit, the band's remaining three members seem thoroughly fed up with each other - diminutive drummer and band spokesperson Lars Ulrich refuses to see eye to eye with singer (and struggling alcoholic) James Hetfield, who exasperatedly rolls his eyes at Towle's "Metallica Mission Statement" and ignores guitarist Kirk Hammett's pleas to make nice with Ulrich. A dysfunctional family with Ulrich as the band's de facto mommy, Hetfield as the controlling, liquored-up daddy, and Hammett as the timid child trying to stop the fighting, the group seems ready to explode. Then, with inter-band relationships at their most strained, Hetfield unexpectedly leaves for rehab, bringing an abrupt halt to sessions for the new album and awkwardly placing his band members' professional lives on indefinite hold.
What follows is a year-long hiatus in which Ulrich and Hammett, along with long-time producer and friend Bob Rock, strive to remain sane while waiting to find out whether Hetfield will want to resume Metallica once he's finished sobering up. Berlinger and Sinofsky (Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills) detail the band's slow unraveling with unassuming fly-on-the-wall concentration, using claustrophobic close-ups and revealing spatial compositions to visualize both the band's fractured state and each individual members' personal frustration and fury. To contextualize this upheaval, the filmmakers intercut much of this 2001-2003 footage with concert clips and archive documentary material that details the tumultuous path that led the band to this momentous point. Formed in Los Angeles in 1981 by Hetfield and Ulrich, the band's ferocious speed metal was a stinging rebuke to the period's pop metal, and the 1991 release of their eponymous fifth album (unofficially dubbed "The Black Album") helped catapult Metallica to monumental mainstream success. Yet as Berlinger and Sinofsky's astute documentary shows, the 2001 version of the band - still haunted by the 1986 death of bass player Cliff Burton, still drinking too much (the band was famously dubbed "Alcoholica" during the late '80s), still obsessively delineating each members' songwriting roles, and yet now saddled with wives, children, and interests outside of Metallica - is comprised of three people who don't really know each other.
Upon Hetfield's return from his year-long rehab sabbatical, consistent therapy, and an agreement to collectively write the new album's songs and lyrics (a previously unheard of suggestion), the trio slowly begin to mend the band's deep wounds. Throughout, Berlinger and Sinofsky capture intimate moments of doubt and regret, including an astonishing reunion between Ulrich and original guitarist Dave Mustaine (who later founded rival speed metal outfit Megadeth) that conveys the wreckage left in the wake of Metallica's faster-than-thou approach to music and life. The result is that the deified Ulrich, Hetfield, and Hammett are downsized to human form - Osbournes style - by the filmmakers' focus on day-to-day routines, such as the hilariously incongruous image of Hetfield recording vocals on a couch and Ulrich banging his head to the song while both of their young sons sit on their laps. Longtime fans of the band won't be overly surprised by the film's portrait of Hammett and Ulrich - the former remains a complementary, rather than essential, virtuoso, and the latter is a pretentious pain-in-the-ass whose brash indifference to public opinion and battle with Napster made him, as he admits, "the most hated man in metal." However, Hetfield's hard-earned maturation from boozing party boy to devoted family man helps bring an affecting, rough-edged honesty to Berlinger and Sinofsky's warts-and-all depiction of the hard rock goliaths.
At a hefty 139 minutes, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster doesn't quite move with the swiftness of a mid-'80s Metallica thrash-a-thon, but given the directors' wealth of meaty material, there's plenty of stuff to savor: Ulrich's distinctly un-metal art collection (which he eventually sells at Christie's for millions); the drummer's wizened dad giving a blunt critique of some new songs ("Delete it" is his initial response to one track); and the liberating first time that Hetfield and Ulrich see eye-to-eye on writing music. Just like its subjects, the film eventually turns its attention away from the internal (the infighting, the psychobabble, the personal strain) and toward the external joys of being in one of the most famous bands in the world, embodied here by the hiring of new bassist Robert Trujillo and the subsequent world tour in which the band is enthusiastically greeted by its headbanging legion of die-hard fans. The finished album, St. Anger, may ultimately be a mixed effort that falls somewhere in-between the band's glorious Master of Puppets heyday and the indulgent, unfocused disappointments of recent years, but thanks to Berlinger and Sinofsky's stunning documentary, the record can now be appreciated as merely the final, revitalizing component of an arduous three-year riff reclamation project.
The DVD includes a whopping 10 hours of material, including two commentary tracks, 40 deleted scenes, interviews, a music video, and some footage from festivals and premieres. If you're into Metallica, this is the DVD for you.
Smells like Anger.
Run time: 141 mins
In Theaters: Friday 30th July 2004
Box Office USA: $1.0M
Distributed by: IFC Films
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Fresh: 108 Rotten: 14
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Starring: James Hetfield as Himself, Lars Ulrich as Himself, Kirk Hammett as Himself, Bob Rock as Himself, Robert Trujillo as Himself, Jason Newsted as Himself, Phil Towle as Himself, Dave Mustaine as Himself