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Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

(2004) *** Unrated
140 min. IFC Films. Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky. Cast: James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo, Jason Newsted.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is an aptly named documentary creature. Besides referring to a song title from their recent album St. Anger (the end of a six-year dry spell), "Some Kind of Monster" describes the band itself— a confused hydra of egos—and the documentary film, which, though bankrolled by the iconic band, takes on a life of its own. As directed by Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky (Brother's Keeper), Metallica: Some Kind of Monster begins with the band in disarray and ends with a pyrrhic victory of sorts. In between, the film amounts to a comic tragedy on the order of the mockumentary Britcom The Office or, let's be honest, This is Spinal Tap.

Over the course of two years, Berlinger and Sinofsky benefitted from pretty much unfettered access to the band at work (as well as glimpses of home life). At the film's outset, therapist and "performance enhancement coach" Phil Towle hunkers down with what's left of the band after bassist Jason Newsted quit in 2001: lead singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett, and the band's longtime producer Bob Rock (the interim bassist on St. Anger). The band's version of "family therapy" is undeniably comical, but clearly necessary to keep the fragile group communicating and collaborating. If the band mates are dysfunctional brothers, Towle and Rock are their estranged parents, with poor Rock in ambiguous, underappreciated fourth-wheel status.

Hetfield, whose alcohol problems lead to a lengthy, devastating absence from the band, comes off as petulant and exasperating for most of the film. Ulrich reads as mostly sympathetic, and Hammett—who has played with the band for 20 years but is not a founding member—resigns himself to "live and let live" acquiescence. All three variously or collectively come across as dimwitted to a Spinal Tap extreme, penning some pretty awful lyrics and bringing new meaning to headbanging as they meet with creative and personal frustration. Fans may find all of this too much information, as goony emotional displays shatter illusions about how "hard" the band members are. Ultimately, however, the band draws sympathy for their earnest, if self-absorbed, efforts to keep going forward.

When Metallica eventually gets its groove back—getting a new bassist, releasing the album and doing tour dates—the film loses its steam. The fun is in the early going, with the musicians contradictory and barely self-aware. Berlinger and Sinofsky touch briefly on Ulrich's feud with Napster, but far more interesting are his interactions with his spacey father. One-time Metallica member Dave Mustaine sits in with the a painful therapy session. Hetfield returns after his absence with frustrating demands: a 12pm-4pm daily work schedule is all he can offer. The turning point for band and film is the recording of a demeaning radio promo: bonding over their misery, the band mates learn to lighten up and trust each other. Of course, that's no fun.

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