There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
I am kicking myself so hard right now. How did I put off watching Some Kind of Monster for so long? The angle here, as you probably know by now, is that Metallica undergoes some intense group therapy sessions while recording their 2003 album St. Anger and a film crew captures it all. I was under the impression that this was going to be an opportunity to take the piss out of one of the more over-the-hill bands in rock as they went on a meandering journey inside themselves, but what I got instead was one of the most sincere and unguarded portrayals of a dysfunctional family caught at a crossroads and struggling to do the work required to get their shit together.
It’s fitting, I suppose, that Some Kind Of Monster, a film about one of the heaviest bands ever, is pound for pound one of the heaviest music documentaries I’ve ever seen. We put our rock gods on unattainable pedestals, so seeing these musicians presenting their experiences of insecurity and making themselves so vulnerable in this way is shocking. These are the guys who recorded “Battery,” and here we see them struggling to constructively and respectfully express themselves with each other. The therapy sessions are facilitated by self-described "Performance Enhancement Coach" Phil Towle who has made a name for himself by helping sports teams get their mojo back (and it should be noted, failed to get Rage Against the Machine back together in 2000). Everyone seems skeptical going into these touchy feely meetings, but by the end they can’t bring themselves to let go of the emotional structure that Towle provides.
There are moments here that were jaw-droppingly frank and raw. The peak for me was when the band’s therapist sets up a meeting between drummer Lars Ulrich and former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine. There’s something about the way that Mustaine slides so easily into a mode of direct and brutal honesty with Ulrich that floored me. “People hate me because of you...” he says in a truly disarming way, not trying to twist the knife in a clearly uncomfortable Ulrich, intending instead to plainly express the painful feelings he’s endured ever since the band fired him in 1983. There are a number of other moments that are pretty tense, but that one unexpectedly caught me off guard.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the nineties were a lackluster period for Metallica. Sure, they released Load (and its companion, Reload) but otherwise their output since The Black Album in 1991 was constrained to an odds and sods covers album and a couple of live records (one with a symphony!). I mean, no one was expecting these guys to maintain the hectic pace of stone-cold classics that they blessed the world with throughout the 80s, but they had clearly hit a skid as the new millennium dawned and were desperately in need of a creative energy infusion.
For me, the visibly fractured status of the group as they headed into these recording slash therapy sessions begged the question “Why even stay together at all?” Everyone has accumulated so much baggage by this point, and what bitterness has crept in over the past 20 years was fast-approaching a critical mass, with the filmmakers capturing a couple of legitimately touch-and-go moments. In a group like this, how do you know when to hang it up? When you’re as deep into a thing as these three guys are, with a whole organization resting on your shoulders, how do you see past the troubled moment you’re in and look ahead to a future where things are working out? Sometimes what you think is a bump in the road may actually be an opportunity to get out while the getting’s good. For Metallica though, through the combination of talk therapy, a significantly more democratic approach to songwriting, a freshly sober front man, and a new bassist, they used that bump in the road as a launch pad into a what would be a second (third?) act of their career.
Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky pull off a pretty remarkable feat with Some Kind of Monster. Here’s a film that could have easily crawled too far up its own ass and been nothing more than an over-serious wank or a real life This Is Spinal Tap Frankenstein come to life where the band is the butt of the joke. Instead, there’s more than enough humanity on display from all involved parties to the point where you really feel for these guys as they fight through the creative plateau that tends to hit artists who get wildly successful at a young age and then start families. It’s this perfect balance of emotional directness, while still embracing the admittedly silly bombast of Metallica’s metal core, that makes Some Kind of Monster required viewing.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.