Heavy Mental

Enjoy the guilty pleasure of witnessing a hugely successful rock band tear itself apart

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DIRECTED BY Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

STARRING James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Phil Towle, Kirk Hammett

Opened October 1, Cert 15, 140 mins

You don’t need to be a Metallica fan to enjoy the bust-ups and breakdowns caught on camera here. Closer in tone to the grimly funny confessional psychodramas of reality TV than the corporate whitewash of most music docs, this is an extraordinary film about a multi-platinum supergroup running headlong into mid-life marital crisis. Think This Is Spinal Tap meets I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.

Directors Berlinger and Sinofsky were initially hired by Metallica’s label to document the recording of the band’s 2003 album, St Anger. A routine commission, except they arrived in the teeth of internal power struggles which almost finished off the Frisco foursome.

The first tremor is the departure of bass player Jason Newstead, who blames the tyrannical leadership style of “my main cat” James Hetfield, singer and guitarist. The band are clearly in a bad way, inviting cameras in on their torturous group therapy meetings in between studio sessions. Then, Hetfield storms out to spend almost a year in rehab, leaving drummer Lars Ulrich to ponder a bleak future without his beloved Metallica.

The contrast between Metallica’s public image as the four hoarse men of the rock apocalypse and their private existence as bickering millionaires trading feel-my-pain psychobabble is very funny. But Sinofsky and Berlinger go beyond the joke to explore the darker tensions behind the HM overlords. Especially Hetfield, who opens up about the abusive family background which informs his doom-laden lyrical vision. On finally returning to finish St Anger, Hetfield is a changed man, but his paranoid and controlling side hasn’t been entirely banished. He appears to have transformed from overtly aggressive tyrant to passive-aggressive, humourless prima donna. The pre-detox Hetfield was a wild-haired boozer who joked about skipping his son’s birthday to hunt bears in Russia. The new Hetfield looks neat and studious as he dutifully attends his daughter’s ballet lessons. It’s a toss-up which one is scarier.

The supporting cast in Some Kind Of Monster is also a scream, and another gift to the directors. Phil Towle, a middle-aged “performance coach” who steers Hetfield and Ulrich through their rocky patch, gets the deadpan straight-man role. Towle became a fixture in the band for two years on a handsome retainer, only to be jettisoned with indecent haste when the rock gods got their mojos working again. Dave Mustaine, forced out of Metallica to form splinter group Megadeth in the early ’80s, also offers a classic cry-baby cameo when a therapy-inspired Ulrich tries to settle old accounts. But best of all is Torben Ulrich, father of Lars and former Danish Olympic tennis champion, looking like some grand wizard from Middle Earth. In one painfully funny scene, Ulrich Sr offers his thumbs-down verdict on the latest Metallica recordings. Paging doctor Freud or what?

Fully endorsed by the band, Some Kind Of Monster could have been an almighty indulgence, but in some ways it’s the opposite. Casual viewers could be forgiven for reading the exercise as a forensic Trojan Horse demolition of Metallica. Except that Sinofsky and Berlinger clearly take the band’s tantrums and traumas seriously. Whether by accident or design, both band and film-makers have starkly illuminated the peculiar cocktail of privilege and pressure, pampering and pain at the heart of 21st-century rock-star mega-fame. This is a hugely entertaining film which proves that the line between clever and stupid is often very fine indeed.


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