It's not easy being Metallica. They've shifted 90 million albums, sold out arenas from Jersey to Rio de Janeiro, and are renowned for being one of the heaviest rock outfits on the planet. But when it came time to make their eighth album in 2001, the group began to disintegrate.
First bassist Jason Newsted left. Then the foursome - a band so associated with partying that fans referred to them as "Alcoholica"- went into therapy with a "performance enhancement coach." Then vocalist James Hetfield walked out of the studio and into rehab. Things were rough during the making of St. Anger. Ask soft-spoken guitarist Kirk Hammett to name the era's low point and he says "pretty much all of it."
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster documents all the frustrations and roadblocks, coming off like a cross between This is Spinal Tap and Long Day's Journey into Night. While St. Anger perplexed many, Monster relates the fascinating tale of how its creation saved the band from destruction. It's a revealing look into how a modern rock group works – with all the fighting, tears and elation it entails.
Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky became friends with drummer Lars Ulrich after they asked to use Metallica's music in Paradise Lost, the acclaimed 1996 film they made about the West Memphis Three murders. They were initially hired to make a lengthy electronic press kit on the making of St. Anger.
"Day One, we walked in there and here's the biggest heavy metal band of all time going through group therapy," says Sinofsky, "So we knew it was going to be something more than an infomercial."
There was plenty of muck to sort through. Metallica were in a state of arrested development. Ulrich and Hetfield had always been the domineering forces in the band, writing the music and telling the others how to play it. No one in the band had ever really gotten over the 1986 death of their bassist Cliff Burton, which helped lead to Newsted's departure. At the beginning of the film, Hetfield is so self-absorbed that he skips his son's first birthday party to drink vodka and hunt bears in Russia during a break from recording.
So their management team hired Phil Towle, a counselor who had previously tried to keep Rage Against the Machine together. Towle became the band's constant companion, holding daily therapy sessions, posting signs around the studio reading "Admission is Believing," and even contributing song lyrics.
"Man, what a challenge!" laughs Hetfield at the memory of the 60-something therapist giving him the words he was to sing. "At that time in my life, I felt like I didn't really know how closed off I was, so I better let everything in. That's an addict – one extreme to the other. So everything was fine! ‘You want to write lyrics? Come on in!'"
The directors took cues from Gimme Shelter, the 1970 Rolling Stones documentary made by fly-on-the-wall pioneers, the Maysles Brothers. "Great rockumentaries are a window into their times," Berlinger says. "We believe, in our own small way, that Monster transcends its subject of music. There's such a stigma about rock icons saying it's OK to ask for help. Could you imagine this film being made 20 years ago?"
It's hard to believe this film being made now. In a time of coddled superstars, Metallica were so determined to be shown warts and all that they bought the print from Elektra for $2 million. The filmmakers still marvel that a band helmed by two formidable control freaks okay'd a romp through their dirty laundry. At one flash point, Hetfield and Ulrich feud over drum patterns. When the smoke clears, the guitarist is off to rehab. "They get into a fight," recalls Sinofsky, "James leaves and slams the door, and we didn't see him again for 11 months."
"He literally said, ‘I've been trying to get in this rehab place; I'm going away for five weeks,'" says Ulrich. "Then he walked out. It was a little like, ‘Huh? Did that just happen?'"
Five weeks turned into nearly a year. When Hammett saw him next he was wearing glasses and had cut his hair. "I was shocked," he says. "James looked like a person that had been through months of trench warfare."
The film has a few lighter moments. Ulrich laughs as he recalled watching their manager check his watch while listening to several proposed tracks for St. Anger. And the preview audience roared with approval when Hetfield complains about feeling undervalued, and Hammett retorts, "That's like the last 15 years for me."
In what might be Monster's "Turn it up to 11" moment, Ulrich attacks a recovering Hetfield for saying he'll only record from noon to four pm. "You're so f*cking self-absorbed!" he cries. In his frustration he repeatedly screams the F-word at an unblinking Hetfield.
"When I watch that scene, I know the old me would have thrown him through the window," says Hetfield. "The healthy me said, ‘I understand all that anger had to get out, but I won't allow that to happen again.' We sorted it out."
Watching Monster can be uncomfortable for others, too. Ulrich leaves the room when the film recounts his battle with Napster. Hammett is also of two minds. "I don't know if I enjoyed the movie or not," he admits. "It was some of the darkest moments in our career. In three months, we went from four people in the band to two."
With Rob Trujillo now on board playing bass, Metallica are happier than ever. For Hetfield, touring sober was a revelation. "I've never been so moved onstage," he said. "The hairs were standing up on my arms." While on tour, they recorded songs and jams in a portable studio. "There's a spirit in this [current edition of the] band that's unlike any I can remember in its history," agrees Ulrich.
Having come so close to splitting, can they see a time when Metallica might be no more? "It's not about a life ‘after Metallica,' it's about a life ‘besides Metallica,'" Ulrich says. "The area I'm worried about is physically. Play ‘Blackened,' ‘Damage Inc.,' and ‘Battery' when you're 60 years old. I don't know if that's possible."