In 2001, Metallica were a band in extreme turmoil. They had just sued Napster and their own fans for copyright infringement; the bass player exited stage left when vocalist James Hetfield went on a control trip and blocked his side project; and various injuries had sidelined them from touring, including a jet ski accident and neck injuries from excessive head-banging. Compared with what would follow, this would turn out to be a period of relative calm.
Some Kind of Monster (2004), directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, is a fly-on-the-wall documentary of what happens when a band, rich beyond their wildest imaginations, run out of ideas in the studio and out of patience with each other. Rather than breaking up, resting on the considerable laurels of 80m album sales and a merchandising brand as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, Metallica instead decide to hire a $40,000-a-month therapist to guide them through the treacherous waters of middle-age metal.
The results are unwittingly hilarious. Although St Anger, the album that eventually crawled out from the elongated sessions, is laughably bad, the documentary that washed up after 715 consecutive days of filming remains a bona fide classic: a real-life Spinal Tap and a cautionary tale on many levels.
Often the “solution” to writer’s block is to abandon the very things that made the writer successful. In Metallica’s case, these were meticulously structured songs that verge on symphonic, dexterous guitar heroics, Hetfield’s tortured if often cartoonish lyrics and an overall air of seriousness. Devoid of inspiration, with St Anger, they instead rent an aircraft hangar and use it as a studio, attempting to cobble together songs from aimless, extended jams. They all take turns coming up with lyrics, pens in hand, pads on knees, tossing around desperate snippets of English – which is how we arrive at clangers like “my lifestyle determines my deathstyle” and “I’m madly in anger with you”.
The therapy sessions have the air of four middle-aged men uncomfortably couching personal attacks in the classic “I feel that you ...” therapy speak, with a washed-up guru calmly holding court. Producer Bob Rock, who has one of the better B-plots as he subtly tries to become the official bassist, acts as peacekeeper. Guitarist Kirk Hammett looks bored, while drummer Lars Ulrich takes the bratty younger brother role, igniting Hetfield’s explosive anger on more than a few occasions. One such blow-up sees Hetfield storm out of the studio and into drug and alcohol rehab, where he remains for over half a year.
Once he returns, Hetfield attempts to enforce a strict noon-til-four working day and feels left out when Ulrich and Rock dare to listen back to something they recorded at 4.15pm. This leads to the only nugget that could be considered a true statement and not therapy double-speak, as Ulrich tells him: “[I feel] you control us with your absence.” It’s very insightful.
Elsewhere, the Spinal Tap levels are dialled up to 11 to glorious effect. Ulrich’s wizard-like father steals the show during his brief cameo: all Gandalf beard and crooked wooden cane, walking through a field, opining in his Danish accent on where Metallica sit in the history of rock, tying a thread between British blues and Scandinavian death metal. A drawn-out search for a replacement bass player involves a talent search at Metallica Fan Appreciation Day, the only event that sparks any life in the members. Then there is the awful wet-cardboard snare sound, attempts to freestyle lyrics, much grape eating and a gig inside a prison that doubles as a video clip shoot for title song St Anger.
You couldn’t script it if you tried.