Back in the '80s, when hard-living, hard-drinking ways earned Metallica the nickname "Alcoholica," the group's metal superstars couldn't have envisioned a documentary about them in which the most conspicuous onscreen drinking involves drummer Lars Ulrich knocking back celebratory cocktails after selling much of his art collection for untold millions. They probably also never imagined that the same film would focus more on feelings than on drugs and sex, and that after exiting rehab for alcoholism, frontman James Hetfield would wear bookish spectacles that make him look unnervingly like a heavily tattooed graduate student.
Yet all that happens in Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, an amazing documentary from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, best known for investigating the vagaries of the justice system with Brother's Keeper and the two Paradise Lost movies. Some Kind Of Monster chronicles the long, torturous, and eventful recording of St. Anger, following Metallica through one crisis after another—most notably Hetfield's extended stint in rehab, the band's first attempts to record without longtime bassist Jason Newsted, and Ulrich's divisive war with Napster. The group and venerable producer/stabilizing force Bob Rock want to return to the ferocious intensity of Metallica's early days, but the hunger and solidarity that once fueled the music seems to have dissipated. Soon, the band hires $40,000-a-month therapist and "performance coach" Phil Towle to referee its bitter fights and help it explore its feelings in a more honest and open fashion.
Some Kind Of Monster offers a refreshingly nuanced, multi-dimensional take on therapy. Towle obviously helped the band work through some of its issues, but the film also shows how therapy's touchy-feely language can feel like a convoluted way of talking around issues rather than confronting them directly. In the film's most moving segments, former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine confides to Ulrich that wishes he were still in the group, and that as successful as he's been with Megadeth, he'll always live in Metallica's shadow.
A filmed display of such candor and honesty would be remarkable coming from, say, Dashboard Confessional, but coming from metal icons, it's downright surreal. When Mustaine tenderly refers to the Ulrich he started out with as his little Danish friend, the moment is poignant enough to raise goosebumps on the arms of even the most stoic metalhead. It's a measure of the film's brilliance that it strips away the trappings of superstardom and allows audiences to see these men as flawed human beings first, musicians second, and rock gods a distant third.