Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

Question: What would you say to a band that’s just starting out on the rock scene today?

Cliff Burton, former Metallica bassist: Quit!

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, a new documentary currently showing at 3 Penny, teaches us that heavy metal isn’t just tuneless bashing: it’s tuneless bashing about deep inner pain. Drummer Lars Ulrich provides one of the film’s many revelatory moments as he lays down a rare vocal track, screaming “Fuuuck!”–one long, drawn-out, vein-popping syllable–until he topples over in exhaustion. Wow, we’re supposed to think, here is metal’s distilled essence: a scream of rage from a tormented soul. When front man James Hetfield bellows, “I’m madly in anger with you,” we’re meant to be impressed by his emotional courage, even though he sounds like Eddie Vedder impersonating a water buffalo impersonating Glenn Danzig.

After all, this isn’t a film about music so much as it’s a film about obstacles overcome and inner demons conquered–or at least paid off with great gobs of cash. It’s depressingly appropriate that Metallica’s songs have been used in the interrogation of Iraqi prisoners–the band’s childish grandiosity is as American as its myopic fixation on self-improvement.

Metal has become the new arena rock–music designed to pump you up as you wash your SUV or invade a sovereign nation. But this is a relatively recent development. In its early days, metal had nothing to do with the faux-soulful emoting of Bob Seger–its nearest relatives were the bombastic music of Wagner and Bruckner and the overarranged, ponderous song-suites of jazz fusion. Its intensity was formalist, not humanist. Lyrically early metal bands like Black Sabbath focused on impersonal, fantastic, and often apocalyptic imagery, not confessional whining. Within a few years punk would declare that music was for anybody with a guitar–but in the early 70s, metal said that music belonged only to those who could strangle it and drag it aboard the Viking warship.

That used to be Metallica. Their first three albums–Kill ‘Em All (1983), Ride the Lightning (1984), and Master of Puppets (1986)–were landmarks in metal, hugely catchy and brutally fast. The baroque arrangements recalled Rush, but the delivery was all Motorhead. The guitar sound was like unfinished concrete, and each drum hit blasted like a pistol shot at the bottom of a well. The overall impression was one of fierce, even fearsome control in the face of creeping terror, both existential (“Trapped Under Ice”) and political (“Disposable Heroes”). Like bluegrass, Metallica’s early music was about redemption and damnation and the dignity of art in the face of man’s fundamental powerlessness. That’s why the songs have held up so well compared to stuff from Metallica’s thrash contemporaries–bands like Megadeth, Anthrax, and Prong.

In 1986 Metallica bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a tour-bus crash. In the documentary Burton is mentioned only a couple times in passing–it’s hard to tell he was anything more than just an awesome bassist. But in fact Burton was the most musically adventurous member of Metallica. Hetfield and Ulrich were primarily fans of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM)–punk-inflected thug-metal bands like Venom, Crucifixion, and Black Axe. But Burton was into everything: from Thin Lizzy to the Velvet Underground, the Misfits to Simon & Garfunkel, R.E.M. to Stanley Clarke. Guitarist Kirk Hammett, quoted at the Web site, said, “The only person who was able to figure out a time and write it on a piece of paper was Cliff. He had an immense knowledge of timing, musical harmonies, and music theory in general.” In 1987, with new bassist Jason Newsted, Metallica recorded the Garage Days Re-Revisited EP, a collection of covers they’d played over and over with Burton. Possessed by his spirit, songs by Diamond Head, Killing Joke, and Budgie became as fun and terrifying as old country blues–the record made the entire metal genre seem worthwhile.

In a perfect world, that would be the end of the story. But more records followed, each worse than the last. Released in 1989, …And Justice for All had a few bright spots, but with the untitled “Black Album” two years later the band started down the road to banal buffoonery. On its cover the demonic lightning horns were pruned off the first and last letters of “Metallica,” rendering it as bland and inoffensive as any other corporate logo. The next album’s title, Load (1996), says it all, and Re-Load (1997) was more of the same.

Then Ulrich appointed himself a leader in the crusade against file sharing, apparently forgetting that Metallica had gotten its start performing uncredited covers of obscure NWOBHM tracks and built its fan base on the enthusiasm of tape traders. In a tragic misapplication of energies, he and the band pursued fans who’d had the wherewithal to download their increasingly shitty music. And worst of all, they consented to star in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, a cynical, simpleminded combination of The Osbournes and Behind the Music that documents the birthing pains of the band’s new St. Anger. Their cooperation damns them as a bunch of has-beens desperate to promote a plastic turd of an album. They’ve actually been screening a trailer from it on their current tour (which comes to Allstate Arena this weekend).

If you don’t care too much about metal, Some Kind of Monster can be a very funny movie–a real-life This Is Spinal Tap, as many critics have gleefully pointed out. After all, what’s sillier than a metal band in group counseling? After Newsted quits in 2001, Ulrich, Hammett, and Hetfield hire sweater-wearing celebrity therapist Phil Towle, at a rate of $40,000 a month, to help them overcome their hatred of one another. If these three (aided and abetted by producer and temporary bassist Bob Rock) can hold things together long enough, the album they’re working on will earn each of them as much as the GNP of a midsize third world nation.

This drags on for two years, time enough for plenty of hijinks and inarticulate posturing. Ulrich mutters, “I don’t want to be a fucking parody.” Mousy beta male Hammett declares that as part of his “personal philosophy” he’s trying to become “egoless” to serve as an example to his bandmates. Hetfield explains that it’s a sign of his rebelliousness when he tears around on the freeway in his shiny little hot-rod roadster, complete with flame job–and in the next scene we see him nodding deferentially and thanking the cop who’s pulled him over for speeding.

Accidental self-exposure is great fun to watch, but the core of the film–like the core of any reality show–is deliberate self-exposure. These guys may be boring middle-aged multimillionaires, but by God, that doesn’t mean they haven’t suffered, and they’re apparently more than happy to share their wrenching emotional discoveries with the camera. A.O. Scott of the New York Times dignifies this process by calling the film “a psychodrama of novelistic intricacy and epic scope.” And so on. Many reviews have been considerably less warm, of course, but most movie critics unfamiliar with Metallica’s oeuvre–and that means most movie critics–seem to agree on two points. First, if anybody is bound to appreciate this foray into pop-cultural anthropology, it’s Metallica fans. Second, once you understand Metallica’s pain and their connection to the primeval American blue-collar unconscious, their new music doesn’t actually sound so bad.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who’s ever truly cared about Metallica knows that the new stuff sucks ass–and there’s nothing funny or touching about watching three talented performers systematically betray themselves, their fans, and their art.

Perhaps most painful is what’s happened to Ulrich. Back in the day he was the leader, writing the bulk of the music and sorting out the arrangements. Other members contributed, but it was his singular vision–and his monster drumming, airtight yet elegant–that made Metallica great. But now everyone writes together, music and lyrics alike. Nobody brings a song in already finished–that’d conflict with the healing communal spirit they’ve found through counseling. Instead they noodle like a Phish cover band, waiting for songs to take shape organically. Do they think they’ll sell more records writing this way? Or is it just easier? And why is Ulrich letting this happen? Maybe he prizes harmony too highly to rock the boat–but maybe he’s just too bored to be bothered anymore. In one scene, he scribbles absently while the rest of the group discusses quality control. When asked for his opinion he looks up blankly. “It all sounds good,” he says.

With Lars out to lunch, the band’s center of gravity has drifted toward Hetfield. With each passing album his vocals have gotten cleaner and higher in the mix, making his words more comprehensible, and he’s started emoting. Bad move. He simply doesn’t have the voice to be a decent singer, much less a great one. Nor does his inner life bear close examination–it’s as pedestrian as his alterna-jock wardrobe, and he proves it in one interview after another. When he trundles through “Some Kind of Monster,” it’s easy to believe that he just couldn’t think of any particular kind. The band’s workshopped lyrics are earnest and dim-witted, and as a result deeply preposterous–and Hetfield’s delivery doesn’t help. Every time he sings on-screen it’s like something out of a horrible sitcom–he might as well be the uptight, clueless dad who learns a valuable lesson when he’s forced to read from his alienated teenage son’s journal in front of the whole school. “My lifestyle determines my deathstyle,” he insists in “Frantic.” In the choruses he sings, “Tick tick tick tick tick tick,” then finally, inevitably, “TOCK!”

Watching the new Metallica at work is an education in the aesthetics of the lowest common denominator. At one point Ulrich decides to break up his drum part a bit and throws in some off-kilter syncopation. For a moment it seems maybe his instincts haven’t gone totally to hell–but then Hetfield stops the song. “Could you just play it normal?” he asks. Ulrich tells Hetfield that his guitar patterns are “stock” and that he just wants to give the music some life. Hetfield starts whining about his bad mood and accuses Ulrich of trying to annoy him. Finally Hetfield ends the session by stomping out of the room and, shortly thereafter, into nine months of rehab. At least there he could blather about his parents’ divorce without being distracted by slightly interesting drum parts.

A conference Metallica has with its label reps to focus-group a title for the new album is even more telling. Ulrich suggests “Frantic”–a rotten song, but a totally thrashworthy title. Hetfield doesn’t like it though, and neither do the label’s paid sycophants–decked out, like Hetfield, in designer shades, designer tattoos, and designer bleached goatees. Outvoted, Ulrich agrees to St. Anger, musing that Metallica has finally proved that you can make aggressive music without negative energy. Sorry Lars, Stryper did it first–and To Hell With the Devil is a better album title.

All these things are just symptoms though–the real problem is that the band no longer seems to care about music. What are they listening to? What inspires them? The answer on both counts seems to be “nothing.” For the duration of the film, we hear only Metallica tunes–maybe this has more to do with licensing problems than the band’s collective taste in music, but it would’ve been hard to follow the old Metallica around for two years without overhearing plenty of great obscure shit blasting out of car radios and boom boxes.

In one scene Newsted explains to the filmmakers that he quit as the group’s bassist after 14 years because he got so much flak from the others for wanting to explore other musical directions on the side. Hetfield, Ulrich, and Hammett seem incapable of acknowledging, much less rebutting, this implicit criticism–instead they respond to Newsted’s act of treason with incomprehension and bitterness. After they’re offered a spot on MTV’s Icon, they have a good laugh at his expense–their former friend has stopped being an “icon” because he abandoned Metallica. But Newsted was sick of being an icon. He wanted to be a musician.

Two other people in the film besides Newsted actually seem inspired by music. One is his replacement, Robert Trujillo, formerly of Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy’s band, who’s finally hired in preparation for the St. Anger tour. He clearly has a lot more love and respect for Metallica than his new bandmates do. We see him pounding away like an evil robot as he auditions with the band on “Battery” (from Master of Puppets), which in the 80s was one of the fastest metal songs not by Napalm Death; we see him cavorting gleefully in his bedroom with his bass after being invited aboard. The other Metallica guys all agree that they play better with Trujillo, and it’s one of the few insightful things to come out of any of their mouths. But as far as Metallica has slid since Kill ‘Em All, Trujillo seems eager to catch up: he grins at his million-dollar signing bonus like he doesn’t know he’s selling his soul.

The other music lover is Ulrich’s dad, who tells his son that he should think of himself as part of a tradition that includes Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Ulrich seems to hold his father in awe–and he is an imposing patriarch, the very image of classic metal wizardry with his long white beard, walking staff, and Danish accent. Ulrich worries about what the old man will think of his recent work: “If just one track sucks,” he says, “he’ll call me on it.” Afterward the two of them listen to some tracks in the studio, watching the levels flicker on a computer monitor as Metallica’s new digitally processed music plays. Sure enough, Papa Ulrich disapproves, asking his son, “Am I in an echo chamber?”

As the two drive away together, Ulrich brushes at his face. Is he crying? Have we at long last been granted a glimpse of his wounded inner child? Who gives a shit? Leave the cozy little narratives of self-discovery and personal fulfillment to the singer-songwriters. Metallica’s music used to be larger than life–adolescent rage and suburban oppression roared through it with the titanic inevitability of myth. Now all they can do is moan about their midlife crises and brag about their petty triumphs. That’s sad, but if they had a shred of decency left they wouldn’t cry about it. They’d just break up.

Metallica plays August 27 and 28 at Allstate Arena in Rosemont; for more info and an ass-backward rationale for going, see Liz Armstrong’s Critic’s Choice in Section 3.

Also on August 27 and 28, Mess Hall hosts a free Metalfest “to give fans of real metal an alternative to the Metallica concerts.” They’ll spin metal albums and screen metal videos and concert footage; Metallica will be represented strictly by material from the Cliff Burton years. Visitors are invited to contribute with music and videos from their own collections–though the organizers note that “anyone attempting to bring False Metal into Mess Hall may be asked to leave.” Mess Hall is at 6932 N. Glenwood, and the fest runs from 7 to 10 PM on Friday and 3 to 10 PM on Saturday; call 773-465-4033 for more.