Knowing what happened after the cameras stopped rolling is the key to fully appreciating the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. In the film, the tortuous, therapy-ridden process the Bay Area bashers employed to finish their St. Anger album is depicted as integral to their continued artistic and commercial health. In our world, the CD swiftly became the most reviled product in a career that had already accumulated its share of pastings from disgruntled former fans.
With the benefit of such market hindsight, the film comes off as a cautionary tale full of hard-rockin' "dont's": Don't hire a pricey "performance enhancement coach" to whip you into shape you should be in on your own. Don't go into the studio with no songs written, hoping to assemble a more organic record. And don't turn lyric-writing into a group process, lest you foster a creative environment in which "My lifestyle determines my deathstyle" is considered a superior contribution.
Here they are laid bare before the world, those free-falling Metallica boys, reacting to the disgusted departure of bassist Jason Newsted with a self-deluding optimism that recalls Spinal Tap in their "jazz odyssey" period. (Vocalist/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield even looks a bit like Michael McKean.) You feel sorry for them, but you can't avert your eyes, mindful that you might be witnessing your generation's Let It Be whether or not the band or the filmmakers have figured that out. On its own merits, the movie is an enthralling (if overlong) group portrait; viewed in context, it's even more fascinating, continually proving the opposite of every point it tries to make.
Pinpointing where things went south seems impossible; as far as we can tell, nothing has ever been very right in this camp. Not a "music movie" by any stretch of the imagination, Some Kind of Napster (sorry, couldn't resist) skins the motivational underbelly of big-time rawk. Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich are shown to harbor some serious daddy issues that can't help but exacerbate their passive-aggressive struggle for control of the band. The creeping dysfunction even extends to ex-members: A slurring, sloppy Dave Mustaine shows up to bemoan the humiliation he's suffered since being tossed out of the ranks in 1983. The millions of records he shifted with Megadeth seem to have been scant consolation.
How could onetime thrash kings be such wussies? Amid the endless blather about band disagreements "coming from fear," you long for Hetfield to once live up to his loutish rep, wrecking the in-studio attempt at democracy with a bellowing announcement that things are going to be done his way, and NOW! But that would upset the egalitarian applecart the group's handlers seem to have been so keen to erect. Notice that Hetfield's session-interrupting trip to rehab appears to have been entirely his own undertaking, while his record label and management pumped untold fortunes into an ongoing ersatz encounter session that could keep this goose laying platinum eggs. Nice priorities there.
There's a backhanded lesson in that indulgence. If you have to pay somebody $40,000 per month to help you do a job that's already making you millions, you may no longer want that job in the first place. This Monster uncovers a nasty secret of rock psychology: Once a band has climbed the pinnacle of success, the only thing left for it to rebel against is its own responsibility.