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Film: Stairway to Happiness

Aging rockers seek counseling in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

By Steve Rosen · July 28th, 2004 · Movies
Metallica frontman James Hetfield (left) and drummer Lars Ulrich confer in a scene from Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.
Metallica frontman James Hetfield (left) and drummer Lars Ulrich confer in a scene from Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

Santa Monica, Calif. -- Way back in 1956, when Johnny Burnette's Rock N Roll Trio recorded the memorable "Rock Therapy," the point was that this new and vibrant youth music was therapy for whatever ails you.

Now, Rock is a world of middle-aged superstar groups, rich beyond their wildest dreams, but insecure about their meaning as they grow older playing what is still seen as a young man's (and woman's) game.

In the new documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the 40ish members of the world's most successful metal band -- aggressively assertive and full of macho rebellion in their fast and furious songs -- decide to do something extraordinary. They undergo group therapy, paying a counselor $40,000 a month for more than two years to help them make a new record. They also let two award-winning documentary filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky of Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost, inside their lives to watch the emotionally raw results. The result is a Rock documentary like few others, which is one reason it's attracting both youthful Metal fans and older film buffs.

In the middle of the film, Metallica's singer/songwriter and guitarist, the plainspoken but moody James Hetfield, simply walks out on the band. He goes to rehab for alcoholism and is gone for a year.

When he returns, he is a changed person -- but still difficult. For co-leader Lars Ulrich, whose acid-tongued humor can be inadvertently hurtful, Hetfield's concerns are exasperating. Ulrich is especially afraid that Hetfield might be jeopardizing the group's future for his own "growth."

"They were guys who were thrust into the limelight at 17 and had somewhat arrested development," Berlinger says of his film's subjects.

"I don't mean intellectually, but they were coddled from the age of 17 on, wealthy and adored. They lived the excesses of Rock & Roll in their 20s.

"But now they're married, for the most part, with children, and they're no longer able to support that kind of lifestyle. It was a real crisis because their very identity and music were wrapped up in an image they felt trapped by."

Berlinger is sitting in the quietly sedate reading room of a luxury hotel near the beach here, with best friend Sinofsky by his side. Before the interview begins, he notices the chilled-out, Electronica-tinged Pop music on the hip hotel's sound system.

"It's not Metallica, that's for sure -- it's going to make us mellow," Berlinger says, laughing.

Hetfield and drummer Ulrich formed Metallica in the Los Angeles Area in 1981. In 1982, lead guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist Cliff Burton joined. Mustaine was fired in 1983 and went on to form Megadeth. Kirk Hammett replaced him and has been with the band ever since.

Burton died in a bus accident while on tour in Sweden in 1986. Jason Newsted replaced him, until he quit in 2001 over creative differences with Hetfield. The band has sold 90 million albums, and for a period was known as "Alcoholica" among fans for its hard-drinking ways.

Berlinger and Sinofsky first became aware of the band while making 1996's Paradise Lost about three Arkansas teens convicted -- wrongly, the filmmakers believe -- of a triple slaying in 1993. The teens were Metallica fans, and the filmmakers wanted to use the music in their film.

"When we contacted the band in 1995, we were laboring under our own stereotypes about these guys, assuming they were moronic meatheads who banged around on guitar and made loud music. We were not Metal fans," Berlinger explains.

Metallica called back immediately and provided their music. Once Paradise Lost came out, both sides were interested in doing something together.

By 2001, Berlinger and Sinofsky had shut down their production company to work separately. Berlinger had made the disastrous Blair Witch 2, an intended satire of the first film. Convinced his career was over, Berlinger reached out to Sinofsky to revive the Metallica project. They called Ulrich and everyone was back on board.

But Metallica was having its own crisis as it tried to make its first album of new songs in five years. (The album, St. Anger, came out in 2003.) Shortly after the filmmakers were hired by Metallica's record company, Elektra Records, an angry Newsted left the group. The band's management, worried about the departure's impact on the others, encouraged the hiring of therapist Phil Towle. Berlinger and Sinofsky were allowed to watch the sessions. Bob Rock, the band's laid-back producer who resembles Martha Stewart, also wound up on the couch and in the film, since he played bass on the recording sessions.

"It sounds almost like a joke, and during the first 20 minutes of the film (the audience) is laughing at the situation," Berlinger says. "Then people realize it isn't a joke. They're grappling with some very serious issues. It blew us away they would go through this and let us film it. But Lars said the cameras actually enabled the therapy. The fact we were documenting it made them feel they had to be truthful with each other because someone was recording it for posterity."

The sessions also helped the filmmakers, who had gone through their own split.

As the therapy and recording sessions dragged on, Elektra decided to recoup its investment in the film by editing it into an Osbournes-like reality show to run on cable when St. Anger was released. The filmmakers were mortified and went to Metallica -- which agreed to buy out Elektra.

"They sent a $2 million check and said, 'We believe in your vision,' which was odd at the time because we had shot 12,000 hours, and they'd seen maybe 30 minutes,'' Berlinger says. "That kind of blind faith you usually don't get. But they felt there was something special about the material we'd gathered and they didn't want it prostituted. We were thrilled."

METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER opens in area theaters Friday.


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