There are two Metallicas.
There’s the Metallica who recorded ‘Master of Puppets’, the black album and last year’s blistering (if ridiculously titled) return to form ‘Death Magnetic’; the Metallica who played an awesome gig at the O2 Arena on Monday night that left me pumped with adrenalin and half deaf.
Then there’s the Metallica of ‘Some Kind of Monster’, an epic (two hour twenty minute) account of a band in crisis. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky set out to put together a “making of” documentary on ‘St Anger’, Metallica’s first studio album in six years. They ended up with a portrait of egomania and vulnerability; rehab and therapy; struggles with interrelationships and the creative process; and the departure of Jason Newsted, their bassist of fifteen years since the death of original line-up member Cliff Burton in 1986.
The axis of the group – the Mick ‘n’ Keef as it were – are drummer Lars Ulrich and vocalist/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield. Their friendship/rivalry/power struggle similarly forms the axis of the film. Neither of them come out of it smelling of roses.
Hetfield’s leave of absence to enter rehab for what is diplomatically described as “drinking and other addictions” prompts Metallica’s management, concerned as to how long this will detract from the recording of the new album, to retain the services of a former therapist, Phil Towle, to act as a “performance-enhancing coach”. What follows, in essence, is that a middle-aged guy with a penchant for cardigans sits down with some middle-aged guys with a penchant for heavy metal and encourages them to share their feelings and resolve their issues.
Sounds excruciating, doesn’t it? And in a way it is. Let’s face it: we want our rock stars, our guitar heroes, our headbanging bad boys in the studio or on stage – not on the psychiatrist’s freakin’ couch. We want them acting out the lifestyle that would get the rest of us cuffed, booked and had up before the beak if we ever tried it – not analysing themselves. We want them stoned, drunk, loaded, rip-snorting and going through a bevy of nubile groupies like a dose of salts – not sitting around talking about their issues. After all, you don’t see a nebbish and neurotic Woody Allen alter ego grab an electric guitar, thrash out some power chords, scream “Raaaarrrrhhhhhrrrrrrr!” into a mike, chug a bottle of JD, hoover up some Colombian marching powder and chuck a TV out of a window, so what’s with the role-reversal on Metallica’s part?
And yet it’s this intrinsic incongruity that makes ‘Some Kind of Monster’ fascinating and compelling viewing. There’s the businesslike manner in which new bassist Robert Trujillo is signed up; you feel they ought to be wearing suits and sitting in a boardroom. Now compare that with Ulrich snapping during an argument with Hetfield and yelling “FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” right in his face at high volume. There’s producer Bob Rock encouraging Ulrich to get this anger out of his system and into the songs; Ulrich screams the same profanity into a microphone, screams himself hoarse, screams himself into a collapsed heap, exhausted and gasping for breath. “Good,” Rock says blandly. “Now do it four more times.”
There’s Ulrich selling his paintings (an impressive gallery of grotesquerie) for millions and desperately vying for the approbation of his father.* There’s lead guitarist Kirk Hammett fretting that the perceived direction of the new album – a raw, blunt, immediate sound – doesn’t allow for guitar solos. There’s Towle trying to talk the band into continuing their, ahem, counselling after they decide he’s outlived his usefulness and try to oust him from the ’Tallica camp.
And then there’s the music itself: ‘St Anger’ is a brutal, jagged album, as raw and immediate as the band intended it to be.
And every word of it was written in therapy sessions.
*I quit bothering what mine thought about me years ago and feel a whole lot better for it.