Near the end of the mesmerizing documentary "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," Metallica drummer and co-founder Lars Ulrich reflects on the global phenomenon his band has become. Nobody has ever done what Metallica has done, he says (I'm paraphrasing here) -- create loud, aggressive rock music that isn't based on negative energy. I don't know how much I buy any aspect of that statement, but it's a revealing comment, and one that speaks directly to the contradictions of this fascinating movie from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (directors of "Brother's Keeper" and "Paradise Lost"), which veers unpredictably between wrenching psychodrama and "Spinal Tap"-style mockumentary.
"Some Kind of Monster" depicts a major rock band in near-total meltdown, but very little of it goes the way you'd expect. Ulrich may be trying to make sense of his own journey, which comes pretty close to the standard rock-star dream: He was once a Danish-born outcast in suburban California, listening to obscure import metal singles in his bedroom; now he's a middle-aged zillionaire with a supermodel wife and a collection of contemporary art that warrants its own sale at Christie's. (He drinks himself into a stupor at the Manhattan auction house while he watches it go.)
But while big-money decadence is nothing new in rock 'n' roll, it has never looked quite so, well, normal. Ulrich, along with bemuscled singer-guitarist James Hetfield and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, has ridden the ultimate musical expression of teen rebellion to almost uncountable piles of cash. But they utterly lack the pseudo-intellectual manner of a Mick Jagger or Bono, or the mystical pretensions of Zeppelin or Floyd. For better or worse, they're just richer, older versions of the dudes from suburban Cali they always were. As this intimate portrait makes clear, even they seem to feel ambivalent about their success, and more than a little depressed.
Can a musical style driven by adolescent testosterone overdrive still thrive when its leading band consists of three rich guys who sit around in hotel suites with a suntanned shrink, talking about their abandonment issues? What is lost (and what is gained) when a beloved subculture of the '80s turns into the mainstream mass culture of the '90s and beyond? (This last question, as you might have noticed, is one of the defining cultural quandaries of our era.) Berlinger and Sinofsky's film is less a standard rockumentary than an exploration of these unanswerable questions; you might call it an inquiry into the crisis of masculinity that also happens, every now and then, to rock out massively.
Obviously Metallica fans and former fans will need to see this movie, to cheer or sneer as the case may be. But I didn't much care about the band or its members one way or another before sitting down to watch "Some Kind of Monster" -- I don't really listen to metal, but I know I'm supposed to respect Metallica for their integrity and their superior musicianship -- and I came away enthralled, enraged, perplexed and confounded.
Ultimately this film has more to say to nonfans than to those with a preexisting passionate relationship to Metallica and its members. Music geeks may argue about the question of whether this is the most exacting depiction of how exactly a rock band functions in the studio. But for other viewers, it's an unstinting, almost clinical study of three essentially likable American guys facing midlife crisis, who happen to be at the very pinnacle of corporate rock. (I don't mean that as a pejorative; it's just true.)
If Hetfield and Ulrich sometimes come off as arrogant and narcissistic, well, you and I might be like that too if we'd sold 90 million albums and spent the last 15 years being ass-kissed and told we were great artists. (In the middle of Metallica's struggle to record a new album, for instance, some guys flew airplanes into some buildings in New York. The band doesn't seem to notice, and the events of Sept. 11 are never mentioned here.) Their flaws, including their sometimes amazing self-absorption, make them seem human. Whether you love Metallica's music or can barely tolerate it, by the end of the movie you'll be rooting for the band to survive.
Formed in 1981 by the then-teenage Ulrich and Hetfield, Metallica became the uncrowned kings of the semi-underground thrash-metal genre in the '80s. (Just ask that stringy-haired guy down the block -- the one who works on his Chevelle even when it's snowing -- if he thinks "Master of Puppets" kicks ass or what.) With the eponymous "Metallica" (aka "The Black Album") in 1991, the band moved toward a more mainstream arena-rock sound that owed as much to Led Zeppelin and U2 as to Ozzy. If this left the head-banging Anthrax/Slayer purists behind, it sure sold a lot of records. (The band's Web site claims that in the last decade it has been the No. 1 concert draw in North America, and has outsold Britney Spears, Madonna, the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and Celine Dion.)
When Berlinger and Sinofsky showed up in 2001 to start making their Metallica film, it already seemed like a dramatic moment. The band hadn't released a new studio album since "ReLoad" in 1997 (which was basically a bunch of leftover tracks from the previous year's "Load"). Bassist Jason Newsted had not-so-amicably departed after 15 years (to the aforementioned purists, he had never lived up to original bassist Cliff Burton, who died in a 1986 bus crash).
As the film begins, acerbic control freak Ulrich and the stone-faced, tattooed Hetfield are barely on speaking terms. Celebrated lead guitarist Hammett (who looks and sounds exactly like Carlos Santana's unacknowledged metalhead offspring) seems to be retreating ever more into his rural California ranch and his quasi-Buddhist worldview. ("I try to be an example of egolessness for the other guys," he tells the filmmakers.)
Berlinger and Sinofsky could never have guessed, however, that the process that eventually led to Metallica's 2003 "St. Anger" album would take two full years. It involved a lengthy stint in rehab for Hetfield and the band's increasingly head-trippy relationship with a therapist-guru figure with a bad Rudy Giuliani combover named Phil Towle.
Towle begins usefully enough, coaxing Hetfield and Ulrich back into the studio despite their increasingly obvious mutual dislike. During Hetfield's year-long disappearance, Towle keeps the nucleus of the band together, preventing Ulrich and Hammett from slipping into total despair. But when he starts writing song lyrics and posting inspirational slogans all over the recording studio, and the band has to hold a private meeting to discuss firing him -- well, that's one of about 100 occasions in this film where you'll say, "They're doing this in front of a camera?"
When Hetfield reappears, armed with a nifty new '50s-greaser haircut, a renewed commitment to his family (earlier, he misses his son's first birthday party -- to go kill bears in Russia) and a full panoply of New Age recovery clichés, the movie itself comes into question. Berlinger, Sinofsky and their crew actually enter the film for a few minutes to talk with the band members about why they should go through with this crazy level of self-exposure. I don't know that Metallica, in the end, will prove to be more than a minor chapter in rock history. But to go through with this film took guts, honesty and even a kind of nobility -- and all of us who are fascinated by the unsolvable quandaries of pop culture owe the band for that.