Last fall, a hilarious 3,000-word review of Metallica’s unlistenable St. Anger by some guy named Colin Tappe circulated over the Internet. He claimed he doesn’t really care about the band since his motto was always “Those who can’t Slayer, Metallica,” but what the heck: “Maybe it’s just me, but when you buy a fucking Metallica album, you’re supposed to be able to hear the fucking guitars!!! . . . Like, ain’t these cats something like a half a fucking century old a piece? And they’re still wrestling with thesauruses to voice their ‘pain’? Christ, I hope if I ever get to this state of living off fumes of nostalgia for my youth my retrogressive trip won’t be so fucking square sounding as these assholes. . . . This (again) fucking Metallica album contains—are y’all ready—not one god damned motherfucking guitar solo.” You get the idea.
Anyway, now there’s a movie out about how Metallica made the album! And it got stellar grades at Sundance, no less, from people who couldn’t distinguish “Whiplash” from “The Unforgiven” in a blindfold test. The supposed hook is the allegedly unprecedented way Some Kind of Monster—a chronicle of the band’s psychoanalytically assisted recording misadventures, directed by Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger, previously semi-famous for murder documentaries and Blair Witch 2—reveals these scary headbangers as, deep down, sensitive souls. Which is kinda true; once broken-childhood-surviving singer James Hetfield finally goes through rehab and starts insisting on working only four hours a day so he can make his daughter’s ballet lessons, you feel sorry for the dork. But then you remember how crappy Aerosmith got after they knocked the monkey off their backs. Not to mention that Metallica haven’t made a decent album of original songs for 16 years.
And you remember that “therapy rock” has been the dullest cliché on earth ever since Nirvana inspired emo, and that the whole idea that we’re supposed to care about rock stars as people (as opposed to, say, makers of songs and riffs) is ridiculous, and that rare-vinyl-collecting tennis-prodigy geek turned Basquiat-collecting drummer Lars Ulrich and Buddhism-spoutingly mild-mannered half-Filipino hippie guitarist Kirk Hammett had never seemed remotely threatening in the first place, and that Lars’s Napster-baiting period absolutely justified Metallica’s recent legacy as the most hated band by their own fans in rock history, and that this group has been obsessed with suicidal tendencies and sanitariums and sundry other mental health issues ever since their beautiful “Fade to Black” in 1984, and it clicks: This flick is almost all old news. You’d be better off buying that new Slade in Flame DVD—and better rocked too, since (beyond one flashback to impossibly nimble original bassist Cliff Burton and his 1986 bus-accident death) Monster‘s soundtrack somehow manages to entirely ignore the Renaissance-goth gorgeousness that once made Metallica distinctive. All that said, the mere way these eternal has-beens still take their art so seriously somehow makes them more endearing. Which might even be the point.
Rock critics show up in the very first scene (a cinema first?), but the film gives no acknowledgment that St. Anger got horrible reviews. In fact, from an opening blurb calling them the top touring band of the ’90s through a concluding one where the album tops charts all over the world, much of Monster is just a two-and-a-half-hour puff piece about how “important” Metallica are and, worse, how much “integrity” they have. (“We’ve proven that you can make aggressive music without negative energy,” gawd.) The first 45 minutes drag; things picks up once old-married-couple control freaks Lars and James start acting like they’re gonna beat each other’s brains out.
James is pleasingly paranoid once he’s on the wagon; earlier and more vodka-marinated, after bragging about shooting a constipated bear in Russia, he returns to the studio and sings like a constipated bear, and nobody notices! Lars deserves bonus points for being shorter than his wife, and his remark that the band’s “in a bit of a shit sandwich” wins the most-blatant–Spinal Tap–reference award. But he’s not nearly as lovable as his ancient Danish dad, Torben—a bucktoothed, troll-bearded ex-Wimbledon third-rounder, jazz muso, painter, poet, filmmaker, and arts journalist who looks exactly like the wizard-of-the-rings mountain man inside Led Zep’s Zoso gatefold. He’s also the only person brave enough to tell Metallica their music sucks.
Psychobabbling $40,000-a-month shrink Phil Towle occupies the David St. Hubbins’s girlfriend role; he never quite draws Zodiac-sign portraits of band members, but his implicit suggestion that they try being Kraut-rockers in “meditative mode” would’ve made him a more useful producer than biz-sucking slimeball Bob Rock. Another dumb personnel decision occurs during new-bassist auditions: Metallica pass over impressive unknown Elena Repetto and perfectly doom-toned Unida/Kyuss stoner Scott Reeder for Suicidal Tendencies klutz Robert Trujillo, apparently for his rap-metal cred. Pretty amusing, though, when Trujillo, stuck in a room with all these lonely men discussing “feelings,” suddenly realizes he joined a new age band. And pretty tragic when Kirk Hammett, clearly the movie’s good guy despite badly needing assertiveness training, argues for guitar solos, to no avail.