Profiling the torturous process of what turned out to be a pivotal moment in the long career of the world’s most famous metal band – the release of St. Anger, by Metallica – Some Kind of Monster shows what life is like when the band you started as a bunch of teenagers takes on a life of its own, in which the members are subject to the demands of managers, shareholders, an audience of millions, and the pressure that this brings to bear on the members of the band.
The posing and pouting Metallica that is presented through videos and television appearances – that of a hard-drinking, flippant, sarcastic group of guys who just want to rock out and go drinking – gives way to a group of genuine friends who find themselves in turmoil by the path that events have taken. Their erstwhile bassist, Jason Newsted, announced his departure from the band just prior to the first filming sessions for this documentary and the audience is immediately thrown into a swirling mix of emotions, which run high throughout the film. The very first scenes are of the band discussing with a psychologist whether or not they should even take part in this documentary, a psychologist whose prolonged engagement with the band becomes a sore point later on in the film.
As a long-time admirer of the band but not necessarily a fan, the most interesting part of the film is its concentration on the interplay between the members of the Metallica family – James Hetfield, lead singer and rhythm guitarist; Kirk Hammett, lead guitarist; Lars Ulrich, drummer and unofficial producer, and Bob Rock, producer. The roles in the band are so clearly delineated that they become amusing in their predictability – James and Lars bust heads over every riff, either one of them prone to storming out of the room while Kirk quietly listens, throwing out the occasional mollifying sentiment now and again. Bob Rock’s role is that of mediator and guiding hand, attempting to harness the electric conflict between James, frontman and Lars, drummer, into a recognisably musical form.
The film-makers must have seen James’ decision to enter rehab in the first third of the film as manna from filmic heaven – a portion of the film, six months in real time, is dedicated to the other members not knowing whether or not James would even want to return to the fold following his decision to abandon the hard-drinking life that he followed with such vigour and, if he did return, whether it be the same as before. Some genuinely heart-rending scenes show Kirk, Lars and Bob – clearly still wounded from the departure of Newsted – discussing the band and its potential future.
Whether one sees Metallica as an outdated force in a changing industry or the greatest band in the history of the world, it’s difficult not to be swept up in the story of the band, and the passion of Lars. He is a one-man force of nature, constantly striving to push the band into different and more experimental areas, and whose efforts are always tempered by James, who is happy with chugging riffs and shouting about death. One of the things that this film does best is show the work that goes into being in a world-class rock band, with a world-wide following, and one that is constantly trying to mine something new from the weight that has accumulated over the last few decades.
The trappings of the band’s success, regardless of their bickering, is constantly evident. Lars’s extensive art collection, the fact that the band can afford to hire an old prison, on a whim, and furnish it completely before moving out again, and the very presence of the ‘$40,000 a month psychologist’ (as Lars points out, to said psychologist, later on in the film) means that the band do occasionally come across as spoilt children – shots of Lars jumping excitedly at the auction of his art collection contrasts poorly with his earlier statements on Metallica’s legal battle with Napster – but they are never less than charming.
St. Anger, although not their best album, is shown here to have completely revitalised the band, and their subsequent release Death Magnetic suggests that the road they now walk is one that they will stay on until they are too old, or too deaf, and judging by the band that is shown in Some Kind of Monster – still seeking that powerful riff, that perfect fill – that day will certainly be a sad one.