Rock Therapy

The secret lives of Metallica.

It goes all the way to 11

It sounds like a swipe at Metallica to compare the smashing new documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (IFC Films) to a nonfiction remake of This Is Spinal Tap (1984). But it’s more of a testament to how smart that landmark mockumentary was. Buttressing the satire was an endlessly resonant subject: how rock legends fight to maintain their stature in the face of middle age, petty jealousy (sexual and otherwise), the toll of their reckless hedonism, and, of course, idiocy. Not that the members of Metallica seem like idiots in Some Kind of Monster. They’re shrewd businessmen—and they commissioned this film, so they’re not going to come off too badly. But the movie, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, has the same kind of tension as Spinal Tap: between the ferocious, pagan, anarchic energy it takes to keep a monster metal group aloft, and the weight of the real world, which finally drives these macho rockers into group therapy. First Tony Soprano, now Metallica. The whole world has become a New Yorker cartoon.

The documentary was intended as a relatively straightforward look at the making of an album (it would be St. Anger), the first in years for a group that, in its 20-year history, has sold nearly a hundred million records. But as the film begins, that old black magic isn’t there. The longtime bassist, Jason Newsted, has decamped after feeling artistically suffocated, leaving producer Bob Rock to fill in. More important, there’s something eating the singer, James Hetfield, who’s quarreling incessantly with the drummer and cofounder, Lars Ulrich.

The band members engage a therapist, Phil Towle, to help them talk through their problems, but Hetfield can’t rise to the occasion—can’t manufacture the adrenaline or endorphins or whatever it takes to make kick-ass heavy metal at age 40. There’s a nasty exchange about Hetfield’s guitar-playing, which Ulrich calls “stock,” and then Hetfield takes off, slamming the door conclusively. The next thing anyone hears, he’s in rehab—for, like, nine months.

And so, in the middle part of the film, Metallica faces its own mortality. We see Ulrich twisting in limbo (having just alienated masses of fans with a lawsuit against Napster), now the face of the greedy rock star and stewing in his own impotence. A scene with his Danish dad—a former tennis star and an amazing figure, with a white beard out of Lord of the Rings—is an eye-opener. This patriarch is a stern judge with no patience for people who settle for “stock” guitar playing or anything “status quo.” We watch this weird old dude and see where Ulrich gets his critical impatience—and maybe why he’d push the boundaries and commission a documentary like this one.

Why would the members of Metallica open themselves up to such scrutiny? It helped that they had a relationship with Berlinger and Sinofsky. Metallica had donated songs to both parts of Paradise Lost (1996 and 2000), a devastating documentary about West Memphis, Ark. *, teenagers convicted (probably wrongfully) for the mutilation-murder of three little boys. Local authorities had cited Metallica as a satanic influence on the accused killers—even though the group had rather pointedly eschewed satanism, Goth, girly makeup, and most of the other accoutrements that put fear in the hearts of a G-d-fearing community. Berlinger and Sinofsky came to admire Metallica and to consider them a positive influence on a lot of frustrated kids.

Berlinger and Sinofsky make themselves part of the story when Hetfield finally returns, and the transparency of their process throws the big question back at the viewer: Will Hetfield be strong enough to endure the camera’s scrutiny, now that he’s so undefended? It’s quite a contrast, this quiet, clean-and-sober fellow, sunk deeply into himself—his image intercut with shots of him in his prime as a Dionysian long-haired boozy metal titan. Suddenly, Hetfield’s life is structured, his Metallica participation limited to four hours a day. But it’s Ulrich who chafes against the restraints. He hates that Hetfield controls the recording process even passively, by his absence. The scene in which they have it out is a triumph of the therapeutic process: We see that this conflict goes so deep that it’s like we’re watching a marriage unravel. A marriage and a big, big business.

At some point, all successful rock bands must confront what Max Weber called “the bureaucratization of charismatic leadership.” But isn’t that bureaucracy what metal generally rails against? And what to do about that touchy-feely therapist, who starts to pass them lyrics and to fancy himself (they think) a part of the band: Must they shed him to regain their potency and be able to swagger on stage as true Metal Men? Hetfield raises the ultimate question in a climactic performance before inmates at San Quentin: Can you have aggression—the kind of head-banging fury that gave birth to heavy metal—without negative energy?

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is loose and uninsistent, yet these questions are always in front of us: The movie is brilliantly structured. (The structure is brilliant because it’s barely visible.) It’s about a youth culture that makes all aging graceless, a therapeutic culture that makes all aggression suspect, and a capitalist culture that makes the potential collapse of a zillion-dollar enterprise like Metallica the stuff of high drama. You might think that the music of Metallica is just chunky, non-melodic noise—I do, although I like a few songs (“Enter Sandman,” “Fade to Black”) better now that I know from whence they came. But the band’s implosion and reassembly makes for one of the most marvelous rock documentaries of all time.

Correction, July 16, 2004: An earlier version of this piece located the Paradise Lost documentaries in Memphis, Tenn. instead of West Memphis, Ark. (Return to corrected sentence.)