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All Het Up: Metallica's James Hetfield goes all out for his art onstage.

Heavy Mettle

Metallica muddles through musical and psychic crises in new documentary 'Some Kind of Monster'

By Richard von Busack

YOU DON'T have to love, or even loathe, Northern California's own Metallica to appreciate the band's meltdown fest, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. The film chronicles three excruciating years in Metallica's neurotic anguish.

First, bass player Jason Newsted quits. Then, trouble brews for the hard-partying lead vocalist, James Hetfield, whose fondness for the sauce helped get his band nicknamed "Alcoholica." Hetfield goes into rehab and returns after six months. He's practically a stranger, an emotionally fragile yet demanding recoveree who has to be handled like a basket of eggs.

Earlier, in 2000, Metallica's drummer, Lars Ulrich, testified before Congress against Napster for distributing his music without paying royalties—an incident that helped him and the band make friends all over the Internet. All of this strife adds to the months spent mulling over the new Metallica record.

The band—the most successful in heavy-metal history—vacillates between shelving the album and going on tour, or just basically pulling the plug and slicing the pie. Metallica is aging, and the members have children to think of. And the little meter on the record company's debit machine is spinning like a tweeker's eyes.

Metallica's members share the problem endemic to all bands: they're people who were drawn to music as a form of self-expression. Being slightly inarticulate, they find themselves on the spot when they have to discuss nuances in the music. To keep the lines of communication open, the band hires Phil Towle, an expensive Midwestern coach, to keep the group together. Let's estimate that Towle gets $2,000 per inspirational motto.

Rockumentaries exist so that we can watch rock stars make asses of themselves. Think of Led Zeppelin's "Chronicles of Ridiculous" sequences in The Song Remains the Same, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco stress-barfing in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and Mick Jagger in Gimme Shelter observing a legendary set by Tina Turner and damning himself to eternal hellfire with the patronizing comment "Pretty good for a chick."

There's a bit of Spinal Tap in every band—Metallica even released a Black Album. But the most Spinal Tappish moment in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster comes in a discussion about the wisdom of including a typical heavy-metal guitar solo, much like the scene in which Harry Shearer and Michael McKean mull over what's retro vs. what's nowtro in A Mighty Wind.

Surprisingly, though, what happens to these musicians turns out to be quite moving. One appreciates the inner calm that has kept guitarist Kirk Hammett out of the squabbling between Ulrich and Hetfield. It's apparent that Ulrich's own stubbornness is inherited from his father, Torin, a leathery, no-nonsense woodsman from Denmark, with whom the son consults on the music. Unobtrusively, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky capture a shared gesture made first by father, then by the son, each unaware of the other.

What the filmmakers have captured is mostly beyond mockery. Titles like "Day 433" testify to how long Berlinger and Sinofsky spent with the band, but the tension doesn't show; the directors don't insert themselves into the story. And it's uplifting when the band finally snaps into place, after bass player Robert Trujillo gets an audition. With Trujillo aboard, Metallica's previously competent but commonplace brand of heavy metal suddenly makes you sit up and take notice.

And it's easy to make a snap judgment: Now, that's just what these ditherers needed to get themselves out of the swamp, a gregarious, good-looking, spider-fingered bass player. (Trujillo, his ship come in at last, has a moment you want to cheer at: he plays a solo, jumping up and down on his bed in his tiny bedroom.) But would the members of Metallica have survived the shock of accepting this hot new talent, without the patient, sometimes humiliating work they did on their psyches?

I say that this movie serves as a ringing endorsement for the much-mocked Northern California way of dealing with crisis: through endless therapy, discussion and getting in touch with the emotions. Because of this work, Metallica comes up with music so forceful even San Quentin prisoners prick up their ears at the humble and honest moment when Hetfield introduces his song "St. Anger" at the video shoot.

There's so much posturing among young painters, poets and filmmakers—so much cockiness. While that arrogance is a defense against the indifference of the world, the point of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is simple. Without some kind of sensitivity, sooner or later an artist will slam into a wall he cannot bluff himself over. Without sensitivity, an artist is lost—even an artist in an often-degraded field like heavy-metal music.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Unrated; 135 min.), a documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the July 14-20, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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