Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

So we already know the BEST POP MUSIC FILM (that'd be Purple Rain) and the BEST CONCERT FILM EVER (Stop Making Sense, of course), but what about THE BEST ROCKUMENTARY EVER?

Well, here it is.

Unlike so many pop movies that cater strictly to the fan base, Some Kind of Monster will appeal to those who've never heard of Metallica and even those who don't like them. The film is many things: A story of a band trying to hold it together, a fascinating psychological portrait, a commentary on therapy, a wellspring of unintentional comedy, and a document of the creative process.

I like this movie so much that whenever it's on TV (usually VH1 or VH1 Classic) it's an automatic turn and watch, from whatever point I come in. In honor of that watchable goodness, I present a running diary of my latest viewing of the film. As always, apologies to Bill Simmons, from whom I stole this shtick.

0:00:38 The film starts us off in 2003, with best-selling hard rock band Metallica about to release a new album. Rock critics sulk into a listening room and nod their heads vaguely to the heavy sounds they hear.

0:01:32 Band members sit for lightening round-style press interviews regarding the tortured origins of the new album. Lead singer James Hetfield is asked to summarize Metallica's entire career in one word and he's at a loss for words. The film takes the opportunity to go two years into the past, conveniently to when the film started shooting...

0:03:44 An MTV News Break (remember when those things used to come in and you'd wonder if it was real news or some fluff piece?) with Kurt Loder reveals that Metallica bassist Jason Newsted has quit the band. At the same time, the band are about to begin recording a new album, and have brought in a "performance coach" named Dr. Phillip Towle ("Just, what, exactly, are you a doctor of, Mr. Venkman?") to help them work through their issues as a group. Towle had worked with the Saint Louis Rams, previously. They could probably use him again (They're currently 1-8).

0:04:42 This is the first appearance of Phil's yellow sweater. We'll get to know it well.

0:05:02 In a refreshing moment that'll be repeated, people on film actually mention that they're being filmed. This is always one of the most unrealistic part of documentaries, that people wouldn't show some sort of awareness / discomfort with the fact that there's a camera in their face.

0:07:43 The first day of recording is April 24, 2001. Producer Bob Rock (who helmed some of David Lee Roth, Motley Crue, and Bon Jovi's biggest albums) is producing AND sitting in on bass.

0:07:58 Footage of James Hetfield driving his black with flame-decals dragster as he claims, "This is part of me not trying to be famous." To his credit he realizes how ridiculous this is going to sound and adds that he realizes he's going to get noticed while driving the dragster. Then he tries unsuccessfully to justify it as non-conformity.

0:09:56 Drummer Lars Ulrich lounges in front of a huge Jean-Michel Basquiat painting and waxes philosophical about the nature of the creative process before being interrupted by shouts from his son. "Yes, sweetie?" he replies.

0:11:08 Gentle guitarist Kirk Hammett surfs and reveals he's quit drugs and scaled back his drinking. He claims to like the individualist nature of surfing, which proves to be psychologically telling, given his sublimated role in the band.

0:12:09 Old footage of the recording of the Black Album reveals that things have always been a little bit tense (that was 1991).

0:14:35 As a result of a group lyric-write James stumbles upon the title of the film.

0:15:06 A priceless dose of unintentional comedy comes in the form of Dr. Phil (can I call him that?) reading an earnest bit of prose that ends, "We have learned and we understand and now we must share" followed by Kirk explaining to everyone what a mission statement is.

0:16:40 While rehashing the previous day's collaborative writing, Kirk exclaims, "I couldn't get to sleep last night because I was so wired from it all." Hetfield rolls his eyes, a sure sign of trouble on the horizon.

0:17:27 James killed a bear in Russia, but it's not edible because it had been hibernating. So, good job, you shot a sleepy bear. We also find out that because of this hunting sojourn, he missed his son's first birthday party. Priorities man, priorities.

0:20:00 Lars' improbably cute son comes in to the studio. "This is daddy's workplace," he announces and proceeds to manically play drums.

0:20:46 As if on cue, an interview finds Jason Newsted listing his reasons for leaving the band. For one, he felt music wasn't the number one commitment for the band members anymore. "Music is my children," he says, as English teachers everywhere cringe. The bigger issue, though, is the fact that Newsted felt stymied, like he couldn't do any side projects. And in reference to bringing in a performance coach, he says, "I think that this is really fucking lame." Finally, he makes use of the word "squillions." Good interview, all around.

0:23:14 Hetfield, surprisingly self-aware, admits barring Newsted from side projects. He says he didn't want Jason to enjoy that more than Metallica. "The way I learned to love things was to choke them to death." Like the Russian bear?

0:24:14 A piece of studio equipment is mislabeled METLLICA in neat silver Sharpie marker.

0:26:30 Now is a good time as any to urge you to pay attention to the changing hair lengths and facial hair configurations that the band goes through as the film progresses.

0:29:36 Tension mounts in the studio. James doesn't like Lars' rhythm experimentations, and in classic respond-to-a-complaint-with-your-own complaint, Lars calls James' guitar part "stock." James calls him on this tatic and Lars stays petulant. Bemoaning their lack of communication, he asks, "Do you want me to write it down?" Meek Kirk jumps in with a whiny, "You know what guys, why don't we just go in there and hammer it out instead of hammering on each other." He is roundly ignored.

0:31:54 Another MTV News update, this time with fresh-faced Gideon Yago reporting that James has entered rehab for alcoholism. Points to whoever wrote the copy for throwing in an "Alcoholica" mention.

0:33:05 As the band goes on hiatus while James rehabs, the film focuses on Lars. We meet his gnomish father Torben. As they hike through some open land, watch for an awkward moment where Dr. Phil and Lars talk about Torben as if he isn't there, while Torben appears about to keel over.

0:35:45 In what might be my favorite moment of the film, Lars plays a new Indian-flavored track for his father, who responds in a thick Dutch accent, "I would say delete that. Unless I'm a guy that's shouting in some sort of echo chamber."

0:37:28 Phil's yellow sweater makes appearance # 2!

0:37:42 Discussing James' ongoing absence and the uncertain status of the band, Lars remarks, "This is a bit of a shit sandwich." It's unknown whether or not he was intentionally referring to This Is Spinal Tap. ("The review you had on Shark Sandwich, which was merely a two-word review, just said Shit Sandwich.")

0:41:01 Kirk rides a horse on his land and gives an interview wearing a pink collared shirt, open at the chest. Given his effete mannerisms and way of talking, the first time I saw this I thought, 'I didn't know he was gay!' How cool would that be, to have a gay lead guitarist in one of the heaviest and most macho bands of all time. Eventually, I looked it up. He's not gay.

0:42:22 Dave Mustiane, the guitarist Kirk replaced, shows up for a one-on-one with Lars. Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica before the band even made their first record and is obviously still bitter about it, though the film points out that his post-Metallica band, Megadeth, has not exactly been unsuccessful. He bemoans his severed relationship with Lars and wishes to go back to the good times: "I remember the day you and me talked about digging a hole and smoking hash through the dirt." Okay. This is followed by Lars asking and answering his own questions but not really interacting with Mustaine.

Mustaine then says that, "People hate me because of you" and admits he fucked up. He wishes they had asked him to clean up and get sober instead of just kicking him out of the band. At this point I feel that Dave Mustaine has Bret Michaels-level potential for reality TV career resurrection. Someone get on that.

0:45:44 An extended sequence features Kirk, Lars, and Bob Rock attending the first performance of Jason Newsted's new band, Echobrain. Rock starts to notice a bunch of ex-Metallica crew members now working for Echobrain. Jason doesn't even stick around to talk to his ex-bandmates. A bit melancholy after the gig, Lars laments, "Jason is the future. Metallica is the past." Considering that Echobrain was a flop and that Newsted left after one album, I think he was kinda wrong.

0:52:12 After a YEAR away, James returns. His first comment, "Why are we filming this?" This leads to a discussion about whether the film should carry on, with both directors (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, documentarians who gained the band's trust through their film Paradise Lost) sitting in and seeming open to the option of not continuing. Though we don't see a resolution, they obviously decide to carry on, because the movie doesn't just abruptly end here.

0:58:27 Dr.Phil owns the exact same sweater in robin's egg blue!

0:59:23 While collaborating on lyrics, Kirk comes up with a line they all love: "My lifestyle determines my death style."

1:00:03 There's a good producer moment where Rock gives James a helpful suggestion on how to sing a certain portion of the song. This is a good time to point out that the album they're working on throughout the film ends up being pretty bad. The creative process is still obviously interesting, but imagine how much more amazing the film would be had the record turned out to be a masterpiece!

1:01:28 James, who is limited by his rehab to only work 4 hours a day, complains about Lars and Bob listening to songs without him. "I feel like I'm walking into something that's already been decided." Kirk replies without missing a beat: "That's just like the last 15 years for me." His comment goes unaddressed.

1:04:27 Why is Lars wearing a bathrobe in the studio?

1:06:03 Lars gives a great speech responding to James' complaints about the band working without him. It ends with, "All this rules and all this shit. This is a fucking rock and roll band. There shouldn't be any rules. Fuck."

1:07:56 During a fan appreciation day, regular joes are given the chance to audition for bass player. The winner gets to play a song with the band. How cool is that?! A woman named Elena wins.

1:09:13 The fighting between Lars and James continues. "I'm not enjoying being in the room with you playing," James says. I'm distracted by the ridiculous amount of fruit they keep at their studio.

1:12:00 Lars reflects on his friendship with James and they honestly sound a little bit like a couple. He says that they always got along great when it was just the two of them, but any third party automatically led to strife and competition.

1:15:59 A discussion about not having guitar solos on the album upsets Kirk. "Can I say something that I think is bullshit?" he begins. He then eloquently explains that not putting solos on the songs dates it to a current trend. Everyone actually listens to him this time and they decide there should be no hard and fast rule about solos.

1:18:17 Kirk sez: "I try to be an example of being egoless to the other guys." I don't think it has worked so far.

1:19:26 A rare moment of humor and camaraderie between the three guys as they try to do straight-faced radio promos about some sort of cash giveaway. They soon start making their own vulgar, funny promos like Lars' "I'm about to stick $10,000 up your ass!" They discuss why they have to do this and the answer is basically to grease the palms at the major radio chains. James comes up with the line, "I'll wash your back so you don't stab mine" and of course it ends up in a song.

1:22:19 While doing vocals James does a B-52s Rock Lobster ad lib. A very strange but satisfying moment.

1:22:51 Lars gives a lesson on semantics. Is there really a difference between "moping" and "sulking"?

1:23:25 Bad sweater watch continues, even though we haven't seen Dr.Phil's yellow sweater in awhile. This time it's MTV News' John Norris, who looks supremely uncomfortable in a bright red body-hugging sweater with a large leather-trimmed zipper at the neck.

1:23:59 James discuses the death of original Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. He laments the fact that "we'll never have that initial four guys going on and on." Well, technically if you wanted that you'd have to get Mustaine back in the band.

1:26:29 The yellow sweater is back! Phil tries to contribute some lyrics. Soon after, you can watch him methodically dismantle a sandwich.

1:37:00 They play 18 songs for manager Cliff Burnstein, who becomes progressively more antsy and bored as they go on.

1:40:35 Lars, who has been collecting art for many years, auctions off his entire collection at Christie's. He gets drunk during the bidding and ends up making somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million dollars.

1:45:27 Dr. Phil begins to wear out his welcome. He starts talking about something called "The Zone," which I believe was some sort of method he was hoping to write a book about and get a huge payday. But, the band all think it's stupid. But don't feel sorry for Phil. We soon find out that the band is paying him $40,000 A MONTH for his services. I'm sure to Metallica that's pocket change, but still!

1:46:47 James in reference to Phil: "I'm afraid he's under the impression that he's in the band."

1:49:26 Auditions for a new bass player begin. Bassists from across hard rock come out of the woodwork, including former members of Marilyn Manson, The Cult, Kryuss, Jane's Addiction, and Ozzy Osbourne's band.

1:51:38 The yellow sweater comes back for its fourth and final appearance.

1:54:20 Bob urges the band not to settle on an inferior bass player, warning, "We don't want another Jason." Ouch. Soon after Lars asks, "Are we gonna sack Bob now?" and one can't help but feel a little sorry for the producer, especially when you learn that Metallica didn't bring him back to produce their follow-up.

1:56:28 They pick the Ozzy Osbourne guy, Rob Trujillo, who impressed during audition by "playing Battery with his fingers." He seems like a genuinely sweet and laidback guy. When they give him the official offer to join he looks like all of his dreams have come true. Then we see footage of him practicing bass in his bedroom.

1:58:32 Things get ugly with Phil when the band learns he's considering moving his family from Kansas City to San Fransisco. He doesn't see his relationship with Metallica ending anytime soon and he thinks they still have a lot of work to do. "I have individual performance goals for each of you," he reveals. Lars rightly brings up the question of ethics. If a therapist is making money off of a person being unwell, what is their motivation to cure that person?

2:03:06 They refer to the documentary while discussing business with Rob. They tell him if it loses money, he's not liable for that. I can't find any budgeting info on the film, but it only made about $1.2 million at the box office. I'm sure TV and DVD sales added a bit to that.

2:04:04 Some of the album titles the band considered: We're Already Dead, We're Just Haunting Together; Old, Ugly, Nasty; Best Dressed Chicken In Town; Butchered; Sarcasm With Meaning; Surfing the Zeitgeist; Unbridled; Floods Of Vomit; Speed Ave.; Satanic Cukoo Clock; Unresolve; and St.Anger. They went with the final one.

2:05:44 The band film the video for the album's title track at San Quintin State Prison. This affords us the opportunity to see a lot of awesome prison mustaches. Refreshingly, most of the inmates are white.

2:08:27 The quotable Lars Ulrich: "You can make something aggressive and fucked-up with positive energy."

2:09:58 The band seems at peace with Phil again. James mentions not knowing the difference between depression and sadness, and Phil responds that there is "clearly" a difference, but declines to explain what it is.

2:12:59 The film boasts that St.Anger debuted at number 1 in 30 countries, ignoring the fact that most critics hated it and several fans shunned it. It sold 2 million copies in the U.S., which is not bad, but considering that their previous 8 albums sold 3 million, 5 million, 6 million, 8 million, 15 million, 5 million, 4 million, and 5 million copies respectively, this was a let down. It has a 65/100 Metacritic rating, and the reviews for its follow-up Death Magnetic, all led with, "it's better than St.Anger."

2:13:59 The movie ends with the band playing Frantic, a terrible new song, to an adoring sausage-fest of an audience.

And there you have it, the BEST ROCKUMENTARY EVER!