Director: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
by Jon Cvack
Metallica was one of the first bands I ever fell in love with. It’s a group that contains so many songs that I associate with particular moments of my adolescene and early teen years, that most of their albums now provide me with such a stronge sense of nostaglia that I don’t think I could ever view the music objectively. Ride the Lightning reminds me of when I had to go on college tour trips with my family, as my sister was looking at schools in the vast farmlands of the MidWest. For a 7th Grade music class we had to write a short story inspired by a song we loved and I chose "Nothing Else Matter" because it was really deep. The Unforgiven II reminds me of my first kiss and major crush, and how the situation unraveled shortly after. I took percussion lessons and aspired to be Lars Ulrich (in the pre-Napster days, though after Napster my loyalty to Metallica was greater than any fan backlash - I also didn’t really understand it). I still consider Kill ‘Em All as one of the greatest metal albums, and "Seek and Destroy" as one of the best metal songs of all time. They were a badass band and my first favorite.
This movie is essentially your average music documentary meets American Movie (1999), where contrary to all their badassness, Metallica had opted to recruit a psychologist to help them with their next studio album and paid him $40,000 per week for his services. He teaches them to share their feelings as calmly and directly as possible and so throughout the story we hear a lot of “I understand what you’re saying, but…” and “I respect your opinion, I just don’t think…” and other incredibly tame and light hearted language that is about as in opposition to their music as it could get.
There’s a moment when James Hetfield is warming up his vocals with the classic “me-me-me-me-me”, which sounds far more like a parody than reality. Turns out he had blown out his voice while recording the Black album and has been using the cassette tape ever since. We learn that their bassist Jason Newsted was fired from the band because James didn’t want him splitting his time between Metallica and anything else, essentially forcing him into an ultimatum and - good for him - he left the band, and probably millions upon millions of dollars a result.
Contrary to their typical process, which involved Lars and James writing the music and delegating to the other band members, they wanted everyone to have an equal say, including Kirk Hammet and their producer Bob Rock. As a result, and along with their psychologist’s coaching, they each get to say what works and what doesn’t from everything from the drum beats to the lyrics. Early on in the development, James randomly checks into rehab in order to seek treatment for alcoholism, putting the album on hold. When he returns he tells everyone that he can’t work any longer than eight hours a day, and everyone else is prohibited from listening or discussing what they did that day until they all return to the studio.
In a great scene, Lars talks about how shitty it is for the rest of the members that they have to essentially cater to his schedule. While we agree with everything Lars is saying, it doesn’t help that he’s one of the most passive aggressive characters in the movie. For instance, while laying down a drum track, James criticizes Lars for trying to make it too complicated. Lars responds by saying he doesn’t want to play the same old stuff, and then - like a child - says the fault might actually be James’ for laying down uninspired guitar riffs.
What’s most hilarious is that in the end, St. Anger is a terrible album. Not just by Metallica standards, but any metal standards in general. It makes you wish there was a documentary highlighting the making of And Justice for All…, Ride the Lightning, or the Black album, when the original process was preserved and the alcohol was running rampant. Because whatever happened there is definitely not happening here. As usually occurs to most great musicians, the latter stuff soon starts to suffer, with the members trying to constantly push the boundaries and create something new and original, rather than trying to reproduce what worked best. Here we witness the train wreck coming, making it all the more hilarious every time we see James singing without music in the background (and how horrible it sounds).
At one point they share their music with their Tour Manger, who says it’s really falling short of what he considers Metallica to be. Lars invites his dad into the studio to give it a listen, who also thinks it’s far inferior to all they’ve done. Lars’ passive aggressive laughter makes you want to slap him across the face, as he’s one inch away from lashing out and going full teenage “You just don’t understand me” in response. The thing is they’re all right.
All the while, we see Kirk Hammet, who seems like the one reasonable guy in the room, trying to tame the power struggles between Lars and James. You keep wanting him to say, “You know, how about you just go back to the old style and tell us all what to do.” It’s clear he knows it’s not working, and given what happened to their bassist, he fears what could happen to him as a result.
You can’t help seeing Bob Rock as attempting to do or say anything he can in order to just finish the album. I got the sense that while he wanted to make a decent record, he knew that - regardless of how it was welcomd- it would rocket to the top of the charts and sell millions of copies, making them all the richer, regardless. His mission is to just make it to the finish line.
It’s such an incredible story of the creative process, and what happens when those at the top are no longer part of the world in which they were once rebelling against. Similar to comedic actors (who once super stars, often crash and fast) it was that integration in the world and witnessing how difficult it could be that created some of their best music. There was an authentic and raw energy to it that really started to take a dive with Reload. I kept wondering why they were so committed to do doing something fresh when their process had demonstrably worked so many times in the past. It’s like a bell curve, in which young kids try so hard to be badass and express real feelings through their music, but not having anything to really worry about in their sheltered, suburban, middle class homes.
While once Metallica was eating what they called “Bologna on Hand”, sharing a rundown apartment, and consuming copious amounts of Jagermeister, now they’re fantastically wealthy, with nothing in the world to worry about, except for James who struggles with alcoholism, though even those lyrics are trite and sophomoric. Lars even decides to sell his paintings (which actually are pretty cool) and makes nearly ten million dollars with the sale. James rides to work every day in a different vintage car. The only individual that has any heart seems is Robert Trujillo who we see living in a small studio apartment with a mini fridge, quickly learning that his role in the band is obstensibly irrelevant by all comparisons.
So with that in mind - why not just do what worked? I suppose and understand that it would have been boring, but what if, now that they all have equal say in the development, they attempted to outdo the style of their first four albums? The whole time I just wanted to be there and offer what I would’ve liked to hear as a fan. The risk is mediocrity, but that’s exactly what was delivered.
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