Rehab, patterned jumpers, talking about feelings, melodrama….. it’s the fall and rise of Metallica…… on camera for the world to see.
It was a very interesting time being a Metallica fan at the turn of the new millennium. The 90’s had seen the band rise to household names winning a slew of awards and, in many ways, redefining metal with their 16 million-selling (in the US alone) 1991 album ‘Metallica’. Not content with this, they threw fans a curve ball by cutting their hair, wearing eye liner and releasing videos that were heavily influenced by Hieronymus Bosch. There followed an album of covers old and new, one with an orchestra and a song featured in a major Hollywood movie. 2000 and beyond was shaping up to be an interesting year (and onwards) for the band.
Then Napster reared it’s ugly head. Standing up for their rights as artists suddenly saw the band labelled as a bunch of money-grabbing, out of touch, dicks. Incorrectly labelled as it goes. As a side note, make no mistake: challenging Napster was never about money. It was about control. Metallica’s right to control when their art was presented to the wider world. The leaking of MI2 song ‘I Disappear’ in a work-in-progress form, denied them this control. Again, for the cheap seats…. it was never about money. With a general public that were considerably ill-informed about digital music (and the illegal sharing of it), meant that for many, Metallica had become the very thing they railed against back in the 80’s: corporate, rich, out of touch rock stars. C’mon… this was a band that got signed on the back of tape trading, the 80’s version of Napster. Lars Ulrich, who became the spokesperson for the band, took much of the flak for “his” actions…. even though the entire band was behind him in support. So all in all a difficult Year 2000 for those men-in-black. It was about to get worse.
Metallica regrets to announce that after 14 years as Metallica’s bass player, Jason Newsted has chosen to leave the band. January 17th 2001
I remember, very clearly, after reading this statement that my heart sank. For some reason, I assumed this meant the end of the band. My band, that had travelled with me through the 90’s, was leaving me. The guy who I modelled my whole bass playing style and persona on, was leaving me. I suppose, looking back on that period now, they did leave me as the band I once knew had already started to crumble and was beginning to decimate itself as part of the rebuilding. I/we just didn’t know it at the time. So. Jason left, but the band insist they are carrying on with the writing of the next record. OK… annnnnnnd relax! It’s all plain sailing from here on!
To Our Friends: We would like you all to know that James Hetfield has entered a rehabilitation facility to undergo treatment for alcoholism and other addictions. July 19th 2001
Oh. Well what does this mean now?!? I mean, if it felt like it was over when the bassist left, what happens when the main songwriter, the voice… the “balls” of Metallica decides he has to leave. What now? Jesus, they’re not making this easy for us. Time moves forwards, little happens. The line “natives getting restless now” gets quoted a shit-ton on the MetClub message boards…. always tempered with the sentiment of support for Hetfield’s attempts to get well. News drips out little by little. Suddenly James is back and things are moving forward. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I first heard ‘Driving Rain’ by Govt. Mule. James was a guest vocalist on the song, and to hear his vocals, hear his delivery… nothing had sounded sweeter. He was back, he sounded great (the song is great too) and he sounded like he was ready to kick some arse.
Jump In The Studio (a sub-site of Metallica.com that focussing on the recording of the new album) arrives and each video is dissected to the Nth degree on the message boards. Each picture analysed and assessed. The famous control room white board that was always blurred out in the photos was like catnip for fans. So much so that one enterprising user tried to reverse the blur effects in some photo editing software… but to no avail. It’s announced that the guys who did Paradise Lost are filming the recording of the album for a documentary of some sort. Cool, another Year & A Half In The Life Of.… sweet! In one video, director Bruce Sinofsky lets slip the album title….. tp those who were paying attention, at least.
Then the album is with us. St. Anger. With it’s almost dissonant sound, snare-less snare drum, long songs, de-tuned guitars it’s…. odd. An almost instantly polarising album. I remember seeing the video for St Anger and thinking “well…. that’s…. uh… different”. It was Metallica but not the Metallica I knew of old. Once I got the chance to see Some Kind Of Monster, though, and the journey the band took to the point of album release, it all became clear.
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Filmed during April 2001 to August 2003, Some Kind Of Monster (SKOM) is an important document for many reasons. It is one of the most intimate and eye-opening music documentary in existence. The film’s narrative starts right after Jason Newsted leaves and goes up until the first handful of gigs post-St Anger’s release. Along the journey we are taken through the highs and lows of a 2 year period in the life of Metallica the band and its members as well as seeing the repercussions of the past 20 years manifest themselves in various different ways. And let’s not forget that we get the opportunity to meet the legendary Phil Towle and his sweaters.
Act 1 is the pre-rehab (pre-hab?) version of Metallica. With some judicious editing (as there is throughout the film) we see 3 people start to pick away at their relationships whilst, at the same time, trying to make a record and proving (mostly to themselves I feel) that they are still relevant. Bear in mind this is at the pinnacle of Limp Bizkit/Linkin Park/nu metal/etc etc. We start to see the real Metallica in the (now infamous) studio argument where Lars and James go at each other, producer Bob Rock looks on with resigned despair and Kirk Hammett provides the best comedy moment in the entire film:
James gets up and walks out of the studio and we cut to an MTV report stating that he has entered rehab. In terms of film narrative, that works nicely but it’s not 100% accurate. There were many factors leading up to James’ rehab stint rather than that one specific moment.. One that is briefly touched upon but not delved into, is James hunting trip to Russia. In a scene where he discusses a trip for the MetClub’s magazine, he tells us the viewer (and at the time, readers) that he was way for his son’s first birthday and also that the shot his bear early on in the trip so there was nothing left for him to do other than drink vodka all day. There’s a scene in the film where Lars seems surprised that James was drinking vodka as he states (in the DVD commentary track) James was only drinking red wine at that point.
Both of these things are clearly signs of a someone who has lost sight of what is important to him. He arrives back and some point there after is kicked out of his family home by his wife. Shape up or ship out. Away to rehab he goes.
“My rough road has become smoother reading the show of support from the friends I’ve met through Metallica,” he says. “Thank you. They move me deeply.” December 3rd 2001
Act 2 then finds us with the 2 remaining (at this point, no one had heard from James for months) members of Metallica and we watch them struggle to come to terms with just how everything has fallen to pieces around their ears. Oscillating between moments of black comedy (Bob & Lars pointing out all the people at an Echobrain gig that work/worked for the band working for Jason’s band) to moments of genuine emotion (Bob getting visibly upset when he hears that James lumps his relationship with him in a ‘business category). We see the Lars Ulrich struggle HUGELY with the loss of control of his band. For someone who has steered the band since its inception it is incredibly difficult fr him to not know and not be able to influence the situation. Kirk seems very “zen” about things which speaks volumes about his personality. We are treated to an eye opening segment between Lars and Megadeth main man, Dave Mustaine, who still (at that time) struggled with being kick out of the band. A band he was in for around about a year or so. It speaks volumes about Mustaine, that he saw Metallica as much more than a band; that they were his family where he had none, going so far as to break the leg of someone who had a tussle with Lars. Mustaine has criticised the use of his meeting with Lars in the final film. But he should really put away any negative feelings he may have. He comes across as sincere and hurt. Yes, even though 20 years has passed. He lost his first love and it still stings.
And then James returns and we are into Act 3 in which a newly rehabbed Hetfield tries to find a way to work his old life into his new life, all whilst struggling with control issues with Lars. The analog of two goats clashing horns is apt. Neither of these men are willing to back down. Hetfield’s demands that the band & Bob don’t listen to the music they’ve recorded, when he’s not there is met with derision (behind his back) and when it is addressed, face-to.face, leads to the second Hetfield door slam of the film. We are also treated to, what has since been dubbed, the “Fuck!” scene. In an encapsulation of the general atmosphere, Lars reacts strongly to being told what he can and can’t do. His agitation and resentment rising steadily until he can no longer hold it in and gets about 2 inches from Hetfield’s face and screams “FUCK!” It’s dramatic stuff. The idea that this band is now fixed and ready to rock is quite emphatically set on fire and let burn.
But like all things, these moments pass. Endless therapy sessions lead to understanding and the bonds of unity are rebuilt and strengthened once more. In a scene where the band are forced to record radio idents for a national chain, we see them bonding: us against the world. It’s a sentiment that is telegraphed so clearly you’d think it was scripted. United against a common “enemy”, the band move forwards with the album and their relationships. They then decide it’s time to start auditioning bass players and whilst there are some interesting names int he list there was only ever really one choice: Trujillo. From this point on we are treated to an ever-increasing number of sections that show the record being completed, tour dates being organised, winding down therapy sessions and eventually we see the band on stage, back to full strength. Better and more rounded individuals.
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So what are we to make of all this. Well as an unabashed Metallica fan, I’m naturally going to say this is a great film. But not, perhaps, for the reasons you might think. Yes, it’s cool to see the band recording and Kirk’s house and all that. But this is far more that just lifestyles of the rich and famous. This is a document that shows that Metallica are human. They are individuals that have their strengths and weakness and (this is key) their struggles. Just like you and I do. Yes, they have millions of dollars, nice houses, travel the world etc. Yet they still suffer from petty jealousies, the inability to express their emotions about how the feel towards each other, fears that time has passed them by (by not being ‘relevant’ in the music world anymore)…. these are the same things we deal with as “regular” people. And this is the intrinsic value of this film; it utterly destroys this idea of Metallica as super-human rock GODS and shows them to be what they actually are – 3 men struggling to find cope with change. It’s this stripping away of the magnitude of their personas that, I think, is at the root of people’s discomfort (or disdain) with this film.
Naturally, there are those that lump this film entirely into the category of ‘First World Problems’. But if you look a t little deeper you can see the universal truths that this film presents. We are watching 3 people in an extraordinary situation deal with very ordinary problems; not being able to communicate with those closest to oneself, the inability to be open about ones true feelings and the fear of rejection and abandonment. It’s 3 grown men who have been, to varying degrees, in suspended animation, cosseted away in private jets and receiving the adulation of millions… and the financial benefits that go with it. But never really growing or developing. Look at the way they handled the death of original bassist Cliff Burton: he dies on September 27th, the funeral is 10 days later on October 7th, on October 28th Jason Newsted joins the band by January 2nd of the next year they’re back touring. Within the space of a month they lose a member of their family and replace him. They carried on and shoved those feelings aside. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and this was mentioned in SKOM, but there was no time to grieve, no time to process the loss other than at the bottom of a bottle.
One of the other criticisms levelled at Metallica (including Newsted himself) in the wake of SKOM’s release was the therapy sessions, that bringing in a therapist (although he never refers to himself as such) was something that touchy-feely hippies did, NOT The Metal Gods rawwwwrrrkkkkkk. Heads up folks: without Phil Towle, Metallica would not exist. Yes, really. “Performance Enhancement Coach” Phil Towle was brought into the Metallica camp on the insistence of their managers who had used Towle previously when Rage Against The Machine were having difficulties. Often a figure of ridicule and (later in the film) painted as the designated bad-guy, in fact we Metallica fans have EVERYTHING to thank him for. It was Towle that provided ballast for Ulrich, Hammett and Bob Rock to cling to during the time James was in rehab and incommunicado. It was Towle that promoted and embedded the idea in Metallica that, you know, it’s ok to be honest and open with each other. It was Towle that (as James says in the film) “set out all the tools” that allowed them to navigate this period of their personal and professional lives. Again, without him, I truly believe Metallica would not exist today.
Undoubtedly he becomes far too entrenched with the band, offering lyric suggestions, considering moving to San Francisco to live to continue being a part of the band’s workings. The scene towards the end of the film where he raises trust issues between himself and Hetfield after he (Hetfield) discuss the possibility of ending their therapeutic relationship shows a man who has, perhaps, lost sight of his position and purpose there, that of an impartial outside although Towel does dispute the interpretation of this scene. In a time when it seemed like there was no Metallica left, Towle was the glue that held it all together. Much of his work was not for the album in progress (St Anger) but for the future. And, c’mon, how can you NOT love a guy that turns up to work with Metallica in clothing like this:
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So whilst it veers for too close to Spinal Tap territory sometimes and it’s certainly uncomfortable viewing at times, SKOM is testament to the idea of perseverance, of understanding and of prevailing against all odds. The image towards the end of the film of the band, back on stage, arms around each other gives me goosebumps. Especially when it’s so clear that the continued existence of the band was so precarious, at one point. The resulting album, St Anger, is the sound of a band renewed and reborn…. with a trash-can snare. It, and this film, are important markers in Metallica’s career. The album and the film are unflinching, relentless and unforgiving which is what makes it all so compelling. It’s real human struggle, yes, in a world none of us will ever likely inhabit, but struggles we all have or will go through. It’s exposing the weaknesses and flaws of three individuals. They, and we, are much better people for it.
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