As they release Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, a chronicle of Metallica’s two years in therapy, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are wondering just what is so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding. Monster‘s trudge through James Hetfield’s extended rehab stint, a bassist’s departure, and several ill-fated recording sessions can be moving, but it provokes laughter that the documentarians find vexing. Berlinger explains, “I find this to be an incredibly spiritual film about growth and the creative process. If people want to call this hilarious, but also deep and real, that’s fine.”
From 1992’s Brother’s Keeper, their look at a family of decrepit farmers in upstate New York, to the 1996 and 2000 Paradise Lost films about three teenagers convicted of murder based on their devotion to goth-metal, Berlinger and Sinofsky have exposed even their most sympathetic subjects’ absurdities. It happens here too, despite their efforts to avoid Spinal Tap humor. “We tended to see the humanity of the therapy sessions, and the editor would sometimes go for the laughs,” Berlinger says. Sinofsky adds: “We had multiple editors. Some of them had worked for Comedy Central, and sometimes they would [splice in] a scene that maybe went for a laugh that we thought was inappropriate.” When Elektra execs suggested half-hour reality TV segments, Berlinger’s heart sank. “For a trailblazing band like Metallica to be riding on the coattails of Ozzy Osbourne would have trivialized this material to the point of ridiculousness,” he says.
Metallica eventually bought the footage, trusting the directors they’d known since donating music for Paradise Lost to craft a candid documentary. Drummer Lars Ulrich provided the most home access, says Sinofsky, and they shot some diaper-changing sequences with him. Not so with Hetfield and guitarist Kirk Hammett. Berlinger says, “James’s home life was off-limits because he was repairing his marriage. His addictive rock-and-roll lifestyle had destroyed it.” Plus, he says, “We’d have had a six-hour movie.”
The movie’s not short as it is, but the band’s “performance coach,” Phil Towle, still laments its truncated portrayal of the therapy process. Of the much noted “Fuck off” ‘s between Ulrich and Hetfield, Towle says, “In the film you don’t see them hugging, you don’t see them telling each other the love feelings they feel for each other.” Towle also says some unkind cuts make him out as a bit of a villain: “When I said that I was ‘taking over everything in the band’ . . . people take it seriously, like I really meant that.”
But if the directors poke fun at Towle, they also admit using his methods to deal with their own creative differences. Having fought depression after his compromised 2000 solo effort Blair Witch 2, Berlinger once confided in Towle. “I sat down for an hour-long session with Phil and talked to him about the Blair Witch thing,” says Berlinger. “But then I felt terrible about crossing the line journalistically and pulled back.” The filmmakers continued, though, to use sessions as a blueprint for discussing their own relationship.
In the film, Ulrich describes a Basquiat painting as having no clear beginning or ending. He says that both the therapy and the filming felt like similar creative unknowns. The audience laughter he attributes to anxiety about unexpected disclosures from their heroes. “People are uncomfortable when it gets to some of the deeper levels,” he says. But when asked if there was a time in his life when he might have laughed at the idea of a hard-ass metal band in therapy, he replies, “I fucking still laugh at it! Being self-effacing, to me, is one of the primary reasons we’re still here.”