Under the heading of better late than never, I finally viewed a copy of the 2004 Metallica documentary “Some Kind of Monster.” This film captures the creative and personal tensions erupting between band members during the recording of their 2003 disc “St. Anger.”
This easily could have been way too much information about nothing that interesting, but between the four guys who actually make the behemoth of Metallica go, and the reality of them trying to actually be functioning human beings with lives, the movie becomes a fascinating look at what happens when the wheels come off in an extremely public setting.
The movie arrives at a moment in Metallica’s history that is a pressure cooker situation.
After the huge success of “The Black Album,” followed by “Load” and ReLoad,” all of which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and went multi-platinum, the band needed to come up with an entire album of Metallica-worthy material, but had nothing prepared as they walked into the recording studio. The plan was to jam together and see what happened…
At the same time Metallica was embroiled in an unpopular lawsuit against file sharing service Napster, and substance abuse issues were fueling tensions.
It took bass player Jason Newsted quitting the band, singer and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield entering rehab, plus a ton of therapy and hard work writing and recording before the boys pulled it back together in fine Metallica fashion – over one year later.
What distinguishes “Some Kind of Monster” from other variations of behind the scenes looks at big-time rock-n-roll self-destruction is the level of public introspection.
The discord between Metallica’s members led its management, Q-Prime, to hire performance-enhancing coach Phil Towle, who passes as a therapist, to help the band-mates better understand each other as musicians and human beings.
Metallica is one of the most influential heavy metal bands in history. It has sold over 100 million albums, enjoyed a string of five consecutive records that have debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, and won nine Grammy Awards.
These boys are money-printing machines. When you consider the original members were teenagers at the beginning of this journey, they have grown up inside this beast of their creation that is Metallica.
In a band such as this excess is your calling card. Alcohol, drugs, women and dangerous pursuits come with the territory, and there has never been anyone around to say no to whatever these guys wanted to do.
Eventually, without a reality check, shit will go sideways.
What’s interesting is Metallica was never supposed to be the biggest band in America. They were outsiders. Their first four records received no airplay. They didn’t do videos. It was all underground success.
The band formed in 1981 in Los Angeles with Hetfield, Lars Ulrich on drums, Dave Mustaine, of Megadeth fame, on lead guitar, and Ron McGovney on bass.
Mustaine was fired from Metallica in 1983, due to his abusive personality in relation to extreme drug and alcohol consumption. He was replaced the same day by Exodus lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, who has been with the band ever since.
Metallica’s bass player has always had a certain mystique to it. McGovney was the original bassist but left quickly in 1982 due to personality clashes with Ulrich and Mustaine. He was replaced by Cliff Burton, a classic Metallica guy, who died tragically in Sept. 1986, when the band’s tour bus overturned in Sweden and crushed him.
Burton was replaced by Newsted, who played with Flotsam and Jetsam. While Metallica surged in popularity after Newsted joined the band, the new member endured considerable hazing from Ulrich and Hetfield. The chaotic lifestyle and lack of creative input eventually forced Newsted to leave Metallica.
“At that time (2001) the manager suggested that we have a psycho-therapist come in, a man that meets with pro-ball teams, you know, big ego, big dollar guys that can’t get along, but have to make some kind of entity flow so everybody else and everybody can make the money,” said bassist Jason Newsted. “I actually said I think this is really fucking lame and weak, that we cannot get together, us, the biggest heavy band of all time, the things we’ve been through, the decisions we’ve made about squillions of dollars and squillions of people, and this, we can’t get over this.”
One stabilizing force for Metallica during this period was Bob Rock. He produced all the band’s records since 1991’s “The Black Album.” Rock also played bass and sat in with Metallica through the recording of “St. Anger,” until a new bass player was hired.
It’s fascinating to watch them audition potential new members. Tryouts included: Danny Lohner of Nine Inch Nails; Twiggy Ramirez (Jeordie White) of Marilyn Manson; Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity; Scott Reeder of Kyuss; Chris Wyse of The Cult; and Eric Avery of Jane’s Addiction.
In the end it was Robert Trujillo, who played with Ozzy Osbourne, Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves, who fit best.
Much of the behavior on display throughout this film is marked by immaturity, as these are big kids that never had to grow up. They generate a ton of money and do what they do well, but they reside in a fantasyland, where wealth insulates them, so they quarrel like children.
The level of insecurity is impressive.
Admittedly, I cannot imagine living in the shadow of something like Metallica, nor fully appreciate the vulnerability of going out on stage before 100,000 intoxicated fans if you are feeling self-conscious or fragile.
“I’m working really hard on being the best dad, and father, and husband, I can be – and the best me,” said guitarist James Hetfield, after completing his rehab program. I don’t want to lose any of the stuff I have. I know it could all go away at one time, and that is the tough part of life. This is a total rebirth for me. I’m looking at life in a whole new way. All the other drinking and all the other junk that I was stuck in, it was so predictable, so boring. I’m out there looking for excitement and all this stuff, the results were the same man. I wake up the next day somewhere, in some bed, I don’t know who this person is next to me, and I’m drunk, completely hung over, and have a show to do, and the result is the same, you know. When life now is pretty exciting. You don’t know what’s gonna happen when you’re kinda clear, and here, and in the now.”
“Some Kind of Monster” guts Metallica open. It’s like having closed circuit television to watch other peoples’ therapy sessions.
Prior to watching this film I figured I would be fast-forwarding through some of this footage, as the film runs 141 minutes, but it’s similar to watching a train wreck – I couldn’t look away. It’s interesting enough and has an honest quality to it that demands attention.
It’s bizarre to watch these speed metal tough guys drop their guard to discuss what troubles them. It reminded me of Tony Soprano’s portrayal, only this is real.
In the end “St. Anger” debuted at number one in 30 countries, and the title track won the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 2004.
The film, “Some Kind of Monster,” faired well too, winning the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature.
With as much turmoil and invasive examination as these guys went through, when the closing scene to the film comes on, showing the band backstage right before they are about to play a giant stadium show, it’s apparent the band and the crowd need each other.
A Metallica show is therapy to those who attend – you can get your aggression out without being judged, and the band can do the same.
Let the healing begin.