Legendary metal band Metallica has wreaked a lot of havoc over its 23 years. “Blistering,” “lacerating,” “gut-assaulting,” and “bone-crunching” are the terms most often used to describe the band's oeuvre -- words more frequently associated with bodily harm than with the experience of listening to a CD.
That seems like an awful lot of anger to sustain all the way from the angry '80s to our post–Dr. Phil era. If Metallica has unleashed that much mayhem upon its listeners over the years, what has been the toll on the musicians who produce it?
A devastating one, as revealed in the feature documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Directors Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger followed the band around during a particularly turbulent period -- from 2001 to 2003, right after bassist Jason Newsted quit in a fury over his bandmates' possessive, control-freak ways. The musicians had also launched a wildly unpopular suit against file-sharing service Napster and had started producing records (from Metallica, otherwise known as “the black album,”) that won them mainstream appeal but also the burning enmity of their hardcore fans.
For us (yes, your reviewer is a freakish devotee of the early-era stuff as well as a rabid hater of the later stuff ) Metallica had been howling, garage-punk/metal perfection, four angry boys who needed nothing in terms of artistic enhancement except maybe a dab of Clearasil and an Alberto VO5 Hot Oil Treatment for those stressed headbanging tresses. They played at a murderous gallop half the time and wallowed in a gorgeous, lyrical, Wagnerian bloat the other half. And always, they played with an utter humorlessness -- they were, after all, the pitch-perfect voice of disaffected alienation and rage, channeling the stories of betrayed soldiers, drug addicts, and convicts on death row. Those lyrics were barked out over shifting meters and syncopation, over unorthodox harmonies and modulations -- the band had melodic impact in its drumming, percussive qualities in its guitar-playing. They laid down rapid-fire septuplets, scorching riffs, and beautifully arching melodies, all at the same time. They rocked.
And then they pulled a reverse ugly duckling and turned into shorn, middle-aged, corporatized men who -- most unforgivably -- made flabulously soppy music. The riffs turned rococo, power ballads spread like saccharine malignancies. To quote This Is Spinal Tap -- to which Some Kind of Monster bears some real-life resemblance -- the musicians became “45-year-old rock 'n' roller[s] farting around, cranking out some kind of mediocre, head-banging bullshit.” Metallica soon had the dubious distinction of becoming the band most hated ... by its own fans.
Some Kind of Monster starts off at this low point in Metallica's history, with the band creaking under external pressures and its own internal troubles. Desperate to keep their cash cow, Metallica's management decides to haul the boys in for group therapy with Cosby-sweatered “performance enhancement coach” Phil Towle, who will help them work through the recording of their next album (the resulting 2003 release, St. Anger). What follows is two years of agonizing personal revelations and a retooling of the band's creative process. The film is a harrowing, and sometimes disturbingly funny, examination of ugly psychological nakedness and dysfunction.
As the musicians brood in Towle's office, it's clear that they've developed some very strange familial dynamics in the ways they relate to each other. As he first appears, lead singer James Hetfield plays the role of the absentee, alcoholic dad, pickled in Jägermeister and vodka. Lars Ulrich -- a former Danish tennis star who turned to drumming as a teen -- is the mother, raging with years of pent-up resentment. As for Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist is heartbreakingly sincere and placatory -- the child who thinks that if he just is a good enough boy, mom and dad will stop trying to kill each other. In the midst of a nasty fight (“You're just sitting here being a complete dick,” says Ulrich to the unresponsive Hetfield), Hammett breaks in with his breathy, angelic voice. He thinks the band should “hammer out the music instead of hammering on each other.” Eyes roll like thunder.
The documentary is full of such jarring moments. The film spies on men who are in a state of arrested development, really -- the directors use a boobs, beer, and butt montage to illustrate the culture of Metallica's touring life. There's also a strange and funny incongruity in seeing these raging metal freaks, these caricatures of angry men, softened up. Hammett uses a fingernail buffer to play his guitar and, in one lyric-writing session, offers up some black, Buddhism-flecked doggerel; Ulrich works his gum at an emotional moment with his father; Hetfield sits at his daughter's ballet class and, before a concert, sings, "Mommy, Mommy, MoMMYYYY," warm-ups.
The film's moments of emotional explosion and breakthrough are even more remarkable, including a seconds-long expletive howled by one bandmate right into the impassive face of another. The film is equally unsparing of all of its subjects -- no one comes across as being totally stable in the film, not even Towle (who isn't a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist). When it seems the band may be able to totter off on its own, the good coach begins to manifest separation anxiety from his rock-star clients -- and perhaps his $40,000 a month paycheck. “I'm afraid he's under the impression he's in the band,” one of the musicians mutters.
While the film provides a fascinating glimpse into the transformation of Metallica's creative process and traces the men's emotional evolution with compassion and humor, it is less successful at answering some of the larger philosophical issues it raises. What indeed is the role of anger and dark emotions in art, in Metallica's music? If the demon is exorcised, will the music be as good? And why are these men so full of rage? Without a deeper exploration of their pasts -- Hetfield's Christian Science upbringing, Hammett's childhood in an abusive home -- we can't know. And the transformative moment, when the band begins to feel they can make aggressive music without negative feelings, is somehow lessened for our lack of understanding of what came before.
The band and the film also struggle with notions of how to be authentic in a material world. The embittered Newsted shines a brutally revealing light on his former bandmates' therapy sessions. “This is really fucking lame,” he pronounces. “And weak.” He spits out that “making money” is the underlying reason for the therapy. The band has been accused by its spurned fans as selling out -- is this movie, this gory display of the group's giant, deformed heart, a similar marketing gambit?
It is. And it isn't. Despite all the commercial trappings in their lives, which lie under the very premise of the film and their therapy, the bandmates grapple their way toward a surprisingly deeper humanity and understanding of their music. At one point, they rail against having to record an irritating radio ad -- and then take that anger and write a song with it. “Wash your back so you won't stab mine!” they rhyme, cackling. “I'll rip out your fucking spine!”
At least one of them is utterly transformed by the band's two-year-long therapy session. And as for the music that resulted from their self-introspection? St. Anger is, in some imperfect way, a welcome return to the crunch of the past, even though many fans haven't been pleased with this latest album. As one listener wrote in an amazon.com review, “Metallica craps yet another turd with St. Anger. For additional turds, check out Metallica's entire post–And Justice for All discography ...” I myself am no fan of the album's nü-metal trappings -- the downtuned guitars, the rapped-out lyrics, the unrelenting power chords, the lack of a nice pyrotechnic Hammett guitar solo ... and the production work makes Ulrich's drumwork sound like he stumbled out the back door of a bar after last call and fell into some garbage cans. But there are glimmers of inventiveness and brilliance, like the nicely polyrhythmic stretch at the beginning of the title track and the intriguing harmonies in “Sweet Amber.”
Metallica is clearly still in the process of working out the kinks in their new song-writing approach. That process is, like the band, some kind of monster -- scraps of death, trash, and decay stitched together to make a sort of poetry. The lyrics in St. Anger are noticeably free of the storytelling and different character voices that have marked the band's songs in the past -- it's as if Hetfield and his bandmates are attempting to understand the texture of their own anger, instead of anyone else's.
“This is the voice of silence no more,” Hetfield sings at one point.
This from the singer who wrote “One,” a masterpiece based on the film Johnny Got His Gun, about a war veteran who has had his limbs and face blown off and is desperate to communicate his voiceless thoughts.
In the midst of the new album's navel-gazing, Metallica has lost sight, a little bit, of the galvanizing aspect of rage -- the exhilaration of it -- and replaced it with screamed platitudes like, “I want my anger to be healthy!”
I admit I snickered rudely when this lyric rolled by. But I know that I laughed -- as did the rest of the audience in all the emotionally fraught spots in the movie -- out of deep discomfort with the bandmates' vulnerability, the unexpected yet familiar smallness and humanity under their boozing, headbanging facades.
Metallica fans have been locked, too long, in a dysfunctional relationship of angry disappointment with the objects of their hate and devotion. As the serenely Buddhist Hammett would no doubt say, the fans, just like the band, have to let go of their attachments. Metallica no longer needs to be the voice of our angst, the martyr to our personal anger -- against the band or anything else.
As Hetfield sings in “St. Anger,” “Medallion noose, I hang myself / St. Anger ‘round my neck ... I want my anger just for me ... And I want my anger to be me / And I need to set my anger free.”
Who knows if he and his bandmates can do that, if they can lay down the burden of our anger to find the roots of their own -- or if they can rediscover the clean, cathartic aspects of fury as they feel their way through their new lives. But we should let them do just that -- as this film shows us, even these gods of rage are just human, and deserve the same chance to struggle into a little happiness.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.
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