So here's the scene: You're arguably the greatest heavy metal band to have ever walked to the face of the Earth. You didn't do it first, didn't always necessarily do it better, faster, or louder, but you stood higher, out-sold and out-drew them all, with an excess of 90 million records sold worldwide.
What do you to circa 2001, in your late 30's, writer's block kicking, band interest dwindling thanks to a not-so-smart public attack on Napster, and the mere fact that you just don't seem to like your bandmates anymore? Like any good rock and roll band, you pack your aggressions in a flight case and....go to therapy.
And so goes this alternately intriguing and maddening documentary on Metallica, which offers a fly-on-the-wall viewpoint on exactly what went down during the planning, recording, and release of their monster flop "St. Anger."
The band is to be commended for offering such an unfiltered look into their everyday lives. Not since Madonna's "Truth or Dare" have fans been offered such an in-depth look at one of the world's most popular recording artists. We see the band kicking back in the studio, tossing drinks and past glories, enjoying their "down-time," and yes, in a most bizarre manner, attending therapy.
Yes, you heard that right therapy, in the form of an unlicensed psychologist/"performance enhancer" whose services went for the sum of $40,000/month, and boy was he needed.
On top of the writer's block, you have long-time bassist Jason Newsted walking after 14 years, singer James Hetfield suddenly deciding he's an alcoholic again and doing a near year-long stint in rehab, increasing tensions both within the band and the ever-changing tastes of popular music, not to mention the fact that the band just doesn't seem to have "had it" since the late 80's.
Hetfield and Ulrich manage to paint themselves in various unflattering shades of grey. For two approaching-40 multi-millionaires with legendary status in popular music, it's absolutely shocking how precious little mature life experience the two have between them. Ulrich, described by one former friend as "used to be my little Danish friend," acquits himself as exactly that: a Napoleanic, self-obsessed immigrant-turned-venture capitalist, who's not looking for the right note as much as he's looking for the next dollar that he doesn't need anyway.
Hetfield, on the other hand, is about as readable as wallpaper, and about half as interesting. You don't care about his woes of drinking or the fact that he missed his son's birthday to hunt in Russia, or that he's not feeling the grove, simply because you can feel his oppressive ego subtely controlling every inch of the band's creative direction. And when you realize this, you don't pity Newsted in the least.
But it's Kirk Hammett, that weirdly effeminate, tattooed and piereced lead guitarist, who comes off as the phoniest, right down to those god-awful hair plugs. There isn't a word that comes out of his mouth that doesn't sound staged or forced, that is, when he actually puts his foot out to insert his opinion (best line: "C'mon guys, we got better things to do than argue."). He half-heartedly objects to the band's decision to ditch his as-famous-as-Jesus guitar solos in favor of a more "modern" direction. But this is quickly discarded and never heard from again.
Not surprisingly, it's Newsted who comes off as the most level-headed, even post-Metallica. He tearfully and painfully recalls his final days in the band, and he's dead-on in his dismissal of the therapy idea as "****ing lame and weak." That of course, all but negates the purpose of this documentary in the first place, but it's just like Jason to get overruled again, even after quitting the band.
So with this bizarre cast of characters in place, can it indeed sustain interest for a full 2 and a half hours? Even the most die-hard of Metallica fans are bound to be squirming like a 12-year-old trying to sit through Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" after a while, simply because this damn thing just doesn't move. Even as months and years pass by, you don't feel an ounce of change on the part of any band member. It basically consists of breakup-rehab, followed by Kirk and Lars reluctantly staying on their curfew-mandated singer's timeclock.
The film hits its most poignant moment far too early, with the apperance of none other than founding Metallica member Dave Mustaine, now known as the god of Megadeth. And you've NEVER seen Dave in such a state, bottom lip trembling, mannerisms meek, words carefully chosen; a far cry from the guy who used to fart into the mic, and once started an IRA riot in Ireland some years back.
At first, you have no idea why Dave laments his dismissal all these years later, especially since the man isn't exactly flipping burgers; Megadeth is legendary in its own right, with some 20 million records sold worldwide. Not to mention the fact that Mustaine has crafted more than enough metal masterpieces that are as good as any ever written, and have stood the test of time in ways that even some of Metallica's early "gems" have aged like dogshit.
But it's a harsh lessoned learned in this scene, displaying how even the most privilieged among us can be still be shrouded by the ghosts of the past, living or dead. And you can feel that ghostly tension as Mustaine reminisces about hash-smoking with his "little Danish friend," and wishing that both James and Cliff were in the room.
All of this while Lars sits in a jaw-dropping silent mode. You know you can't put any bullshit past Dave, who can look right through you, and Lars shows that he is indeed smart enough to know when to keep his mouth shut. An all-too-powerful scene from which the film never recovers.
And so the band reconvenes, and that's where this rockumentary morphs from "Truth or Dare", right into "This is Metalli-Tap", and no, it's neither funny nor entertaining.
In the hands of the all-knowing, no-bullshit producer Bob Rock (who's done masterful work with not only Metallica, but also Motley Crue and the Cult), you would at least expect something listenable. Guess again. There isn't a memorable riff to be heard throughout the doc's lenghty recording sessions, not a lyric that doesn't read like 10th grade idle poetry, and not a vocal arrangement that doesn't reek of Papa Roach-esque forced angst.
Say what you want about "Load" and "Re-Load". Sure, rough in some spots, not always conducive to the band's overall flavor, but it did have singular moments of unquestionable power and exhiliartion, unlike any other band of that time period. It's hard to imagine the band sinking even lower, but every piece of new music performed in this film is ABSOLUTELY UNLISTENABLE. Not a hook, melody, or even the slighest hint of competence to be found, and Lars still manages to upset at the sight of his Danish Pai Mei-looking father dismissing the new tracks as junk.
And the band fakes the agression all the way, glad-handing and butt-slapping each other, screaming themselves hoarse on the vocal tracks, all the while trying not to think of the corporate dick-swining that's keeping them employed (tossed-off radio sweepstakes, a motivational speech at San Quentin prison during a video shoot, an MTV "Special" being attended by Fred Durst and Avril Lavigne).
What they can't hide is their body language, displaying nary a trace of enthusiasm for the ebb and flow of their latest creation. They've got the sly scowls of any approaching-40 has-been who can't wait to get on stage, knock out the songs the fans really showed up to hear, and count those dollars afterwards.
We're then led a bizarre montage where the band auditions bass players, featuring a couple of hilariously fish-out-of-water cameos by Mariyn Manson's "Twiggy," Eric from Jane's Addiction, and the bassists from the Cult and Corrosion of Conformity. But the one who sticks is Robert Trujillo, of Ozzy/Suicidal Tendencies fame, who's on-screen demeanor either suggests a massive pot habit or borderline mental retardation.
Regardless, the boy knows how to hold a groove, and he's justly rewarded a spot in the band. But we never get to bask in the schoolboy glory of Trujillo's drafting, simply because the damn thing looks so phony. Nevermind the staged mock-up of Trujillo's supposed living quarters, which suggest not only Section 8, but a lack of professional experience, which couldn't be further from the truth.
The band goes on to perform at the MTV Icon special, and the documentarians wisely avoid showing the flavor-of-the-months who attended the ceremony. Avril Lavigne, who's about as edgy as vanilla iced cream, with as much sincerity as Ashlee Simpson? Fred Durst, who'd show up at a child molestor's convention to get some press? The film ends with the proud declaration that "St. Anger" went to #1 in 30 countries.
Of course, we know it doesn't end there. We aren't told how the album sank like a stone down the charts in mere weeks, or how critics rightly trashed the album for the stunning dreck that it was. Or how the songs were largely left out of the band's tour set-list, or how most people just can't forget about that addition in the Metallica oeuvre fast enough. At which point you see the joke of this documentary, one the band forgot they were the butt of.
Nobody wants to get old and dated in this business. Even Mick Jagger doesn't notice the senior lines etched into his face; in his mind, he's still 22. But the facts of the business are that nobody can stay "it" for too long before someone younger and hungrier takes their spot. So obviously you can't expect to thrill time and time again with each new recording, especially when you're unleashing unlistenable non-songs such as the band was filmed recording.
The most unintentionally hilarious moment of all comes early on, when the band compares itself to Dr. Frankenstein, in that they're creating "some kind of monster" (hence the title). Only in this case, 2 and a half hours after we've seen the band repeately shoot themselves in the foot, up to and including a champage-sodden Lars auctioning off his Pollocks for millions, we realize that Dr. Frankenstein has indeed created a monster. Only this one checked the little girl's pocket for loose change before tossing her into the water.