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St. Anger Management

Metallica Has A Midlife Crisis On Film

Mandatory Metallica: Confronted with painful footage captured by a documentary crew, guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield insisted the filmmakers go "deeper."

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Director:Joe Berlinger
Screen Writer:Joe Berlinger
Release Date:2004

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/5/2004

The only word Lars Ulrich has for what he's feeling is "fuck." And he punctuates each of his complaints with weary "fuck" sighs. The Metallica drummer impatiently paces in a room with his bandmates--guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield and guitarist Kirk Hammet--temporary bassist/producer Bob Rock, and Phil Towle, the $40,000/month therapist qua "personal enhancement coach" hired some 388 days previous to help the band through a very rough career point. Longtime bassist Jason Newsted left Metallica in January 2001, just before it rented an old San Francisco military barracks to record its first new material in five years. Forty-four days later Hetfield and Ulrich get into a tense argument, sending Hetfield out the door and straight into rehab for the next nine months. (Fuck.) The band never records in the barracks again, and when Hetfield returns almost a year later, it records around his therapy schedule, which only permits him to work from noon to 4 p.m. (Fuck.) The omnipresent camera crew of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, hired by the band and Elektra Records to shoot a promotional video for Metallica's new album, is still there, catching everything that happens. (Fuck.) Ulrich has found himself the most hated man in rock for his anti-Napster lawsuits. (Fuck.) And Ulrich can no longer contain his anxieties that he has no clue what in the fuck is going on with his band.

"You control all this stuff even when you're not here," Ulrich says to Hetfield, who sits emotionlessly and takes it all in. "I realize now that I barely knew you at all. I don't want to end up like Jason. I don't want to be pushed away. You see, fuuuuuuuuuuck." And just to make sure he's getting his point across, Ulrich walks over to Hetfield, leans into his ear, and bellows one final "fuck" of exasperation.

"It's exciting when you're filming and you have what we like to call the 'fuck' scene," Sinofsky says over the phone from New York. "You know that is going to be in your movie, because it's just powerful."

"At that point we really felt like we had something special," Berlinger concurs, speaking from his hotel room in Toronto. "But a good chunk of that phase after James came back, we believed the band was disintegrating. And we really weren't that excited about the film because we felt like we were documenting the demise of a band."

Instead of a gawking at a band's death throes, what Berlinger and Sinofsky ended up with is the early 2004 festival season buzz documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, not only one of the most arrestingly candid portraits of an immeasurably popular band but also one of the most intimate documents of midlife transition as well. Thanks to practically unlimited access to Metallica's artistic and personal life, Berlinger and Sinofsky, the documentary team responsible for Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, spent two and a half years shooting and culling through 1,600 hours of footage to assemble Monster, and that access and creative license is plainly visible in the engrossing 139 minutes on screen.

But Berlinger and Sinofsky didn't start out with the Sundance Film Festival in mind. They didn't go into it thinking they were going to have to pass on the commercial work that pays their bills to keep working on the Metallica project as Hetfield's rehab stint stretched to nearly nine months. They especially didn't suspect the band would buy Elektra's stake in the project and then practically give the filmmakers carte blanche to finish it as they envisioned it. When they first came out to San Francisco to shoot a first day of therapy between the band, Rock, and Towle, it was just another corporate gig.

And for Berlinger, it was a chance to get back on his cinematic feet. "Frankly, I was smarting after the disaster of [directing] Blair Witch 2," he says. "My cut of the movie, [Artisan] put it in a blender and puked it out into the world. It was a movie that obviously had serious problems, but the reviews--I didn't mind bad reviews because the film had some real issues, but the criticism was so personal and negative and directed toward me, like, 'You fucking asshole filmmaker, how dare you do this commercial piece of drivel, you're all washed up.' So I spent about two months in a fetal position on my floor until Bruce finally kicked me and said, 'Get up. Your career's not over.'"

The duo had batted around a Metallica project since first contacting the band while making Paradise Lost, a 1996 HBO documentary for which the group permitted the filmmakers to use its music without a fee. Ever since, Berlinger would call Ulrich about possibly doing a project together, and when Berlinger called in 2001 the band surprisingly agreed.

A "making of" video made perfect business sense at the time. Early 2001 was a career low point for Metallica, with Newsted's departure and a new generation changing contemporary metal drastically. The group hadn't released a new album since 1997's Reload--itself assembled from songs left off 1996's Load--and the 1990s' top-drawing concert band, six-time Grammy winner, and best-selling heavy metal artist of all time realized it had slammed headfirst into its first creative dead end in its 20-year history. At the request of its management company, the group hired Phil Towle to help the band sort through whatever interpersonal issues kept them from working together.

For about six weeks, both therapy and recording sessions proceeded without a hitch. "Then one day Lars and James got into that fight," Sinofsky says. "[Hetfield] just stomped out of there. We didn't know at that point he was going away because he had drinking problems and other issues with being on the road. We all looked at each other, and I remember Lars looking at me and saying, 'Well, I bet you're happy.'"

"When James left, we felt something was happening and that was a turning point," Berlinger says. "We told Metallica and the record company that we thought we should keep filming, and luckily they had the courage to do so."

Nearly nine months later, during which time Berlinger and Sinofsky shot footage with Hammet and Ulrich, Hetfield returned, visibly changed, but with more reservations about the filmmakers' presence. "What we did was show James 10 minutes of scenes, including him leaving and the argument between the two of them," Sinofsky says. "And I think a light bulb went off in his head. He said, 'OK, we're gonna go on with this, but it's got to be deep and honest, and that's what I expect from you guys. It has to be deeper and more honest.' And from that moment on, we were up and running. Every day something happened that was valuable to the progression of the movie."

That something included the band responding to Ulrich's fuck-fest and rallying; working nearly another 200 days finishing the record; auditioning and hiring new bassist Robert Trujillo; assuming full financial responsibility of the documentary project; and eventually releasing 2003's St. Anger, which debuted at the No. 1 album spot in 30 countries.

As the film was being edited, the filmmakers felt ethically bound to screen it for the band, since Metallica was both subject and client. "We were damn nervous that they were going to freak out and pull the plug," Berlinger says. "There was total silence during the screening. The lights come up, total silence. And Lars pats me on the back and says, 'Hey, you guys are pretty good at this.'"

Miraculously, the band didn't have any vanity notes to pass the filmmakers about what could and couldn't be included. Even Hetfield--who arguably endured the most personal turmoil during filming--signed off.

"He said, 'Well, you did what you said you'd do,'" Sinofsky says. "And I respect that. Look, I'd have a tough time if I were him seeing that period of my life laid out like a Thanksgiving dinner for the world to see. It tells a pretty remarkable story about a group of very brave guys who are willing to strip down naked for their fans and let themselves be judged. They're not heroes, they're just people with problems, with kids and partners and wives, and just all those things that you approach when you get into your late 30s, early 40s. Most people wouldn't do that. I know I wouldn't."

E-mail Bret McCabe

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