Like a lot of boys growing up in the early 1990s, I was fascinated by the hard-rock band Metallica. What drew me was no mystery. They were dark and powerful and commanded the respect of millions. I was nine and lived in fear of having to undress for swim PE. The gap between us was impossible. For years, I didn't even consider that they were real—that they, like me, were governed by desire and regret, fumbling in the shadow of the question mark of their lives.
Ten years ago, the band served as the subject of a documentary called Some Kind of Monster. How long does it take for a movie to become a cult classic? For me, the answer is four minutes, which is when we meet a man named Phil Towle. Towle is presented as a "Therapist/Performance Enhancement Coach," a title compromised by the fact that he surrendered his therapy license to the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board in the mid-1990s after being cited for a litany of violations, including "continuing treatment when it was not beneficial to the client." Art could not have crafted a more subtle predator. Of all the movie's revelations, none is as devastating as his monthly salary.
We are with Towle and the band now, discussing their uncertain future in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. After 14 years, bassist Jason Newsted has quit, or, depending on how you look at it, been squeezed out by frontman James Hetfield's ego. Nobody is sure how the three remaining members will continue, or if they should continue at all. The atmosphere is cordial but pained. Occupying the same room is trial enough. Cut to Newsted, reclining in a grove: "The things we've been through and decisions we've made, about squillions of dollars and squillions of people... and this? We can't get over this?" He's right. But what is the "this"? Nobody seems to have a clear idea.
Hetfield spends most of the movie struggling with alcoholism and "other addictions." He is by turns sympathetic and infuriating, pitiable and cold. Early on, we learn that he skipped his son's first birthday to go bear hunting in Russia. When asked if he ate the animal after the kill, he answers that it had just emerged from hibernation, so the meat wasn't any good. Mostly he just hung out and drank. They say you don't remember much of that first year anyway.
But there's no point in being hard on James Hetfield, because, as the saying goes, nobody could be harder on James Hetfield than himself. Opposite him in this waltz is Lars Ulrich, their drummer. If Hetfield is a walking button, Ulrich is a finger, prodding at Hetfield with effortless, West Coast passive-aggression, stirring up small problems for fear of acknowledging the larger ones.
Watching him, it's easy to remember that Metallica were never forced to become adults. Like a lot of famous bands, they seem to float in the brine of a suspended adolescence, spared from responsibility by fans, management, record executives, and everyone else with a stake in keeping them exactly the way they are. At one point, Ulrich says the only word that comes to mind for their current predicament is "Fuck," which he repeats at increasing volume while the rest of the room stares at the floor in embarrassment.
Interestingly, we do meet Lars' dad. His name is Torben. A writer, painter, musician and former Danish tennis pro, he is a man unto himself, riding the waves of a private Tao. While he acknowledges the prescience of Metallica's early music, he is also the only person to suggest that they may have lost their way. Stroking his wizard's beard to the sound of an unnamed demo, he tells Lars, "If you said, 'If you were our advisor, then what would you say?' then I would say, 'Delete that.'" The syntax is labored, but the intent clear: This is bad music. Hurt in ways that will probably take years to unpack, Lars Ulrich looks at his dad and laughs.
In the middle of all this is a small, gentle man named Kirk Hammett. All he wants to do is ride horses and go surfing, and, if these motherfuckers can get it together, play guitar in a band that for 20 years has put him last. Outside a modest birthday party held in the kitchen of their studio, the producer Bob Rock tells Ulrich how nice it is that they finally did something for the guy. "Yeah," Ulrich says, "but nobody ever does anything for fuckin' me." It is impossible to tell if he's serious. Of everyone involved, Hammett is the only person to step outside himself and wonder what the people around him might be going through. Watch Hetfield and Ulrich argue while he sits in the background trying to unwrap his burrito as quietly as possible, like a child tiptoeing past parents in the midst of divorce.
No episode of Behind the Music has made me less interested in becoming famous, because no episode of Behind the Music has so gracefully demonstrated the damage fame does to the soul. In the movie's ugliest scene, we see former guitarist Dave Mustaine, kicked out of Metallica just as they were starting to crest, telling Lars Ulrich that strangers on the street still tell him he's a piece of shit 20 years later. After Metallica, Mustaine started Megadeth, a band that went on to release six platinum albums, but could never restore him to feeling like a complete person.
Late in the movie, when Newsted's bassist replacement, Robert Trujillo, is offered his million-dollar signing bonus, I want to reach directly into the screen, tap him on the shoulder, and tell him to sleep on it.
The great mystery of Some Kind of Monster is how the band managed to survive filming it. Toward the end of the movie, they released an album called St. Anger, which shot predictably to the top of the Billboard charts with mixed reviews. In 2008, they released another album called Death Magnetic, and in 2009 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Then, in a fit of invincibility, they collaborated with Lou Reed on something called Lulu, which everyone had a great time making fun of in 2011, but in 2021 will be the subject of its own tender reappraisal. Calling them a heavy-metal band now would be like saying that Coca-Cola is a type of nonalcoholic beverage. They have transcended category. "After Some Kind of Monster," Lars Ulrich said last year, "nothing scares me."
One reason I watch this movie is because I am compelled by absurdity and delusion. Another is that I am interested in watching people try, and in all of the small, familiar ways in which they fail. It has become a summer ritual: Us and a beer and Some Kind of Monster. Moved to summarize this unfailingly complex thing, I can offer this: Three stars on the brink of middle age with their dreams achieved and more money than they could ever spend struggle with the nuanced banalities of being human. It turns out that nothing else matters.
Mike Powell (@sternlunch) lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is a contributing editor at Pitchfork.
Photo by Steve Lovekin / Getty.
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