Twenty years ago this week, two of the best and most influential rock documentaries of the current millennium premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. One of them featured two emerging bands whose interpersonal conflicts exploded while on tour. The other featured one on the most famous bands on earth, whose interpersonal conflicts finally rose to a boil while they struggled to get their act together in a studio.
Dig!, directed by Ondi Timoner, follows the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre as they essentially fall in and out of love with one another while cutting a drug-fueled swath across the American rock club circuit. A cult hit when it finally hit theaters — Dave Grohl once called it his “favorite horror film” — the documentary helped introduce both groups to much wider audiences, though the bands themselves have long expressed reservations about the way they were portrayed.
Meanwhile, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster was a far stranger beast. Eventually funded by the band itself, the project was initially supposed to be a several-week shoot for a promotional TV special chronicling the genesis of Metallica’s eighth album. Instead, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky ended up embedding themselves with the band for three years, watching on as they came within a hair’s breadth of breaking up. It has just as many uncomfortably revealing moments as Dig!, and just as many scenes you'd imagine the band desperately wanting to scrub, were it not for the fact that they released it themselves.
The result was one of the most honest rock documentaries ever made, as well as one of the best movies ever made about therapy, and a probing study of the longterm psychological strain of living in rock and roll’s state of permanent adolescence. In a strange way, it’s hard to imagine what would have happened to Metallica without it.
When shooting on Some Kind of Monster first got underway in 2001, Metallica had just spent a decade as one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, following a decade in which they were arguably the biggest cult band on the planet. But they hadn’t released an original album since 1997’s Reload, and drummer Lars Ulrich had recently become a popular punching bag when he attempted to take on file-sharing service Napster, which cast the band as a bunch of greedy, out-of-touch rock stars in the popular imagination. (Ironically, virtually everything that Ulrich predicted might happen to the music industry as a result of downloading later came to pass.)
The film begins with an even bigger blow — the abrupt departure of bassist Jason Newstead — after which the remaining three members (along with long-suffering producer Bob Rock) agree to take part in some management-mandated group therapy sessions as cameras roll. But after a few awkward conversations and some frankly uninspiring studio hours, frontman James Hetfield leaves for a long stint in rehab. When he finally returns to the studio, he’s in a far different headspace, with considerably different priorities, and tensions begin to multiply. Midway through shooting, the group's label decides to pulls the plug on the the film project, which prompts Metallica to buy out the existing footage, and foot the bill to finish the rest of the film themselves.
It’s that last part that makes Some Kind of Monster such a curious film, and such an outlier among the types of officially sanctioned music docs that would arrive in a flood in the decades after. Take a quick browse through any streaming service, and you’ll stumble onto dozens upon dozens of newer, high-gloss music documentaries which list the artists themselves as producers, from Lady Gaga's Gaga: Five Foot Two to Taylor Swift's Miss Americana and Travis Scott's Look Mom I Can Fly. Some of these docs have been great, some have been awful, but nearly all of them are undeniably the products of careful public image construction. Even in these films’ most striking private moments — Katy Perry crying on a stage lift in the midst of a divorce, Gaga literally stripping herself bare to reveal the health challenges she’s been struggling under — you’re always aware that the artists themselves have final cut, and that even these glimpses under the hood are often carefully arranged brushstrokes meant to deepen the artist's relatability.
In Some Kind of Monster, however, it’s remarkable how often Metallica allow themselves to look utterly ridiculous. Early attempts to record the album — in which they try to piece together lyrics in round-robin notebook-dump sessions — offer a rare glimpse at what a diamond-selling, stadium-filling band looks like when it has simply run out of ideas. Several band conversations veer uncomfortably close to Spinal Tap territory (although, if you’ve ever been in a band, you’ll know they often do), and “I think it’s f***ing stock!” has since taken a place alongside "these go to eleven" in ironic musician shorthand. Ulrich has never looked less metal than he does in a scene here, raising a toast after selling a Basquiat painting at auction for millions. (Hilariously, that scene was the one that Hetfield unsuccessfully lobbied to have excised from the final cut.)
"I am aware a lot of other musicians seem to have lived a lot of those moments," Ulrich said of the film in 2010. "They weren't necessarily stupid enough to film them like we were and share them with the rest of the world. ... Every time I see Noel Gallagher, he quotes lines from that movie back to me."
But for all its unintentional comedy, what sticks in the memory most are the film’s moments of unguarded sincerity. Hetfield, long the brusque, bearish heart of the band, can be quietly heartbreaking as he realizes that his need for iron-fisted control over Metallica's music is rooted in the trauma of childhood abandonment (his father deserted the family when he was young, and his mother died of cancer in his teens), leaving him to ponder, “I guess the way that I learned how to love things was to choke them to death.” Sensitive, soft-spoken lead guitarist Kirk Hammett lets the camera crew accompany him on a visit to his ranch, which he admits he likes because it’s the only place where he can be free of “anything related to the band, or anyone who would remind me of the band.” And even Ulrich, always willing to play the heel, has a moment of quiet vulnerability when his father, Torben, hits him with the now iconic line, “I would say delete that,” when he hears the work-in-progress track that Metallica’s management has pegged to be the album opener.
That last scene is interesting for a number of reasons. For one, Ulrich Sr. is clearly correct in his critique (the song would not end up making the album at all). And judging by Lars’ stunned reaction, it’s obvious that there weren’t too many people in the drummer’s orbit who felt at ease giving him that sort of feedback. But more than that, for a brief second, one can see past all of Ulrich’s motormouthed, self-promotional bluster, to a kid still searching for fatherly approval even as he enters his forties.
These days, therapy-speak is commonplace in pop music, with invocations of “trauma” and “radical self-care” appearing in press releases for even the most anodyne dance pop tracks. This was not the case in 2004, however, and it certainly wasn’t the case with a band like Metallica, which had previously gone out of its way to project a larger-than-life invulnerability. Revisiting the film today, it’s remarkable how modern this framing feels, and how familiar the staging and pacing comes across after after two subsequent decades of reality TV. (One of the film’s centerpieces, the air-clearing meeting between Ulrich and his embittered former bandmate-turned-Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine, could have come straight out of a Real Housewives season finale.) We’ve grown all-too-familiar with rock music’s cautionary tales of overdoses and addictions; here we're presented with the survivors, so handsomely rewarded for behaving like reckless 19-year-olds well into adulthood, suddenly realizing they actually want to grow up, but just have no idea how.
As Hetfield said of the film ten years later: "It was the best mirror we ever had."
The great irony of Some Kind of Monster is that its triumphant final act, in which the band finally achieves a modicum of clarity and self-acceptance, comes with the release of St. Anger, widely regarded as the band’s worst album. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Metallica could have easily broken up at several points during the filming of Some Kind of Monster. At times the film seems to suggest that maybe they should, if for no reason other than to give these three men the space to figure out who they are outside of the band. Was it resilience that kept them going? Sheer economic imperative? The fear of rebuilding a new identity after two decades as part of a collective? Whatever the case, the film casts the simple act of carrying on as its own form of triumph, and in doing so, gave the band the re-set it needed.
Metallica have released three albums since Some Kind of Monster hit theaters. All of them are better than St. Anger, though none of them are as good as the five albums the band released in its first decade, and one senses that the band probably knows this. I saw them in concert for the first time since the early 2000s last summer in Los Angeles: the old songs still sounded amazing, the new songs sounded pretty good, and Hetfield introduced the solitary St. Anger song in the set with a cheeky, “here’s one from your favorite album.” There were plenty of fiftysomethings there, and plenty of high schoolers who likely learned of the band through Stranger Things. In contrast to so many aging rock gods who strive so mightily to deny father time, the members of Metallica looked every day of their sixty years -- proudly so, in fact -- with Hetfield in particular embracing the "Papa Het" nickname he's picked up along the way, his once-expletive-filled between song banter replaced by invocations of family and perseverance. The notion that the band captured in Some Kind of Monster would manage to age gracefully would have seemed ridiculous 20 years ago; now, it's hard to think of too many bands who have done it better.
They can’t go on; they’ll go on.