Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Band on the couch: heavy metal gods get group therapy
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The Independent Culture

Twenty years and 90 million albums after they formed, the most successful heavy metal band in history are in trouble. Once known as "Alcoholica" for their hell-raising ways, the ageing rock gods are undergoing a serious mid-life crisis.

Twenty years and 90 million albums after they formed, the most successful heavy metal band in history are in trouble. Once known as "Alcoholica" for their hell-raising ways, the ageing rock gods are undergoing a serious mid-life crisis.

The hair's thinning, there's been a backlash after the Napster lawsuit and they haven't put out an album in years. The bass guitarist, Jason Newsted, has walked out citing "the physical damage he's done to himself" playing loud music, and the rest of the band are hardly talking.

Enter Phil Towler, a $40,000-a-month shrink, and a film crew to record their group therapy. Part rockumentary, part psychodrama, the film gives a gripping, often painfully intimate insight into a band in meltdown. It's also very funny. While James Hetfield, the band's surly singer, slams doors on the control-freak drummer, Lars Ulrich, and the guitarist, Kirk Hammett, a Buddhist, "tries to be an example of egolessness to the other guys", the pastel-sweatered "performance-enhancement coach" Towle writes a Metallica mission statement and encourages them to talk through their "abandonment issues".

Then, just when things could not get more weird, Hetfield checks into rehab, leaving his friends, and the future of Metallica in limbo for almost a year.

Watching self-obsessed, fortysomething rock millionaires bitch and moan has rarely been so entertaining. Add in Ulrich's trollish Danish dad, Hetfield's post-rehab paranoia (not only is the band unable to work more than four hours a day but no one is allowed to listen to or talk about the music when he's not there) and an emotional confrontation with Dave Mustaine, the former Metallica guitarist and Mega-death founder, and this mesmerising slice of speed-metal confessional soon out-taps Spinal Tap.

But if the level of access that the documentary team, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, get to their subjects is jaw-dropping, what's really surprising is the way they make you care about them. Central to this is Hetfield's struggle to overcome alcoholism and learn how to be a husband and father. Sure, there's something amusing about watching this meathead psychobabble on about "his lifestyle defining his death-style" but a scene where the heavily tattooed frontman goes to his daughter's ballet class is genuinely touching. You may start off sniggering but a couple of hours in you're fully involved. Will Hetfield be able to perform sober? Will Metallica find a new bassist? Will the band ever be able to shake off Towle, who, after two years, has begun writing lyrics for the new album?

Surprisingly complex, subtle and well-crafted, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster goes beyond rock hagiography or soft-target satire to ask what happens when speed metalheads slow, and whether, driven by anger, substance abuse and teenage testosterone, their creativity can survive stadium success. Fan or not, by the end of the film, you'll be rooting for the band to stay together.

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