Puppets of Masters
For Fans, Metallica’s Not About How the Band has Changed—It’s About How They Still Wanna Fuck Shit Up
Witness a myth in the making: Early in 2001, bassist Jason Newsted leaves Metallica. His departure threatens the group’s already strained situation. It hasn’t released an album of new material since 1996’s Load. Younger nü and underground metal bands are connecting better with the disaffected than Metallica . The most popular and successful heavy metal band of all time is facing, for the first time, its own obsolescence.
So at the behest of its management company, Q Prime, the remaining members of Metallica—the scowling and thick guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield, the brooding and wiry drummer Lars Ulrich, and the easygoing, helium-voiced guitarist Kirk Hammet, all in their 40s—agree to weekly meetings with the $40,000-a-month “personal enhancement” coach Phil Towle as they start to record their new album. Elektra Records hires two filmmakers trying to get back on their feet—documentarians Joe Berlinger, who took a vicious critical flogging for his feature film debut, Book of Shadows : Blair Witch 2, and Bruce Sinofsky—to make a promotional “making of” video. Later—much later, 40 days of volatile recording in a San Francisco barracks later, a screaming match between Hetfield and Ulrich later, one year of Hetfield rehab later, hours of therapy later, a new album later, a new bassist later, 715 days later—what remains is 183 minutes that reinforce heavy metal stereotypes only to explode them. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is one of the most penetrating music documentaries ever captured, a band portrait that has Metallica fans coming back in droves.
Just forget the 12-step psychobabble that’s been spilled about the transformation that these guys, especially Hetfield, undergo. The fascinating moments of Monster aren’t what the band members do via therapy, but what they do to subvert it. The group rediscovers itself in response to a common enemy, and in that camaraderie they rekindle the pith that made their music pissed.
That enemy just happens to be the entity they can’t escape. Monster presents a pervasive peek behind the scenes of the music industry, which casts its dark shadow over the entire proceeding. And the band and filmmakers better be thankful for that; otherwise the wave after wave of nitpicking and soul-searching from Hammet, Hetfield, and Ulrich would look like multimillionaire rock stars whining about problems at which they can throw $40k/month.
So while they can afford that, throughout Monster you see them wondering if it’s worth it. The recording headaches. The starting to hate each other. The having to sit there and listen to Towle, a reptilian Mr. Rogers with a comb-over. The everything.
Plus, representatives from Q Prime and/or Elektra—it’s difficult to tell which is which, since, like hit men, these guys blend into the scenery so easily—frequently check in on their investment, asking the band to make promotional appearances or spots. Towle is a constant reminder to the band members of what and who they are: They’re not Metallica, responsible for selling some 90 million records worldwide. They’re the employees, and it’s time to make the doughnuts.
That constant vigilance brings the group together. Lyric writing becomes a group effort. They start thinking about auditioning new bassists (in a jaw-dropping gesture, the band eventually offers Robert Trujillo $1 million to join the band—i.e., to become a member, not merely the guy who plays bass). And in a moment of crass beauty that serves as Monster’s turn toward the better, Hammet, Hetfield, and Ulrich talk themselves into screwing Clear Channel.
The radio conglomerate asks the band to do a radio spot for a $50,000 contest, and as the members read through scripts they realize that they don’t want to do it, even though, as management tells them, refusing could mean Clear Channel not playing new Metallica songs on their stations.
And with that, the gloves are off: The band starts ad-libbing spots that devolve into a locker room of cruder and cruder jokes until Ulrich offers, “This is Lars from Metallica, and I’m going to shove $50,000 dollars up your ass,” which Hetfield punctuates with, “One by one.”
And it’s these guys to whom their fans respond. These are the musicians they know. Hetfield’s lengthy journey through therapy, rehab, rediscovering what’s important (e.g., his daughter’s ballet recital)—all that is a midlife that many men endure, the scenes that non-Metallica fans carry from Monster. But taking it on the chin from fans over suing Napster, jumping through therapeutic hoops only to make an album sans guitar solos, and then deciding to flip off the biggest radio company in the country? That’s what the guy in North Dakota with the And Justice for All . . . T-shirt is going to remember. That’s the band he knows. Anybody can have a midlife crisis, but only the creators of Kill ’Em All are gonna tell a communications conglomerate where to shove it.