The votes had been counted, and the people (ok, just a few of the people, but people none the less) had weighed in. Following my popular mandate, I took the F Train Friday afternoon to the 2nd Ave stop and the lovely Landmark Sunshine Theater* to take in the 4:45 screening of Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster. I thought the film had all of the ingredients of great drama and was an incredibly exciting and unique insight into collaboration, the therapeutic process, and the inspiration of the creative mind. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know Metallica are talented musicians and have been one of the most sucessful bands of the last 15 years, but there was always a stigma in my mind that, as balls-rich heavy metal icons, the band were something of a parody.
And with good reason. With Lars Ullirch taking on Napster users for stealing from the band, frontman James Hetfield in rehab for alcoholism, and the somewhat ditzy Kirk Hammett arguing passionately to retain the guitar solo, there certainly are clichés at play in the film. What was most surprising to me was the creative and interpersonal dynamic that goes into creating the music.
The band mention several times that their work on this album (titled St. Anger) was a new process for them. Whereas the band had traditionally come into the studio with ideas and songs completed (only to fine tune them as a collaborative process,) these sessions were predicated on complete collaboration and, shockingly, improvisation. Although the word is rarely used, there are several interesting examples of group improvisation at play, and the scenes where band members sit in the studio with pen and pad and spontaneously compose lyrics for Hetfield to sing are windows into the different conceptions of and perspectives within the group.
All of this experiementation and improvisation extends directly from the therapy and interpersonal crises the band face as they collectivelty confront their relationships with one another. At first, the theraputic process is challenging, and it is shocking to see the reality of the band’s idea of communication. Hetfield is the silent authority, his band mates stepping around him gingerly until he makes some sort of pronouncement and frames the debate for the others. This leads to a perception of Hetfield as a brooding, controlling leader who uses his power as songwriter and founder of the band to get his way. The toll on the band over time is clear– interviews with former Metallica members Jason Newstead and Dave Mustaine reveal the depth of hurt that Hetfield’s leadership created, and Ullrich in particular spends the first half of the film railing against Hetfield, but from the comfort and safety of a cage. His role and the structure of the band’s past relationships give Ullrich room to be and create and argue, but he is safe in the comfort of his ascribed role. It almost feels as if Hetfield allows him to get away with being rightfully angry in order to assuage his own self-doubt. Ullrich is Hetfield’s id, and we sympathize with his frustrations. He is like an angry wife in a marriage on the rocks.
But a funny thing happens on the way to heavy metal healing– Hetfield checks himself into rehab and is away from the band for a year so that he can restructure his life and become more like the person everyone in the band wanted him to be– expressive of his feelings, collaborative, communicating, happy. His recovery throws everything into question– who are Metallica without the former power dynamics, without the ascribed roles and the comfortable discomfort they provided? The reaction is fascinating, and the band’s attempts at dealing with it (more group therapy, structured working hours, more collaboration in the studio) are thrilling to watch. It is Ullrich who turns as well. Thrown from the comfort of his traditional process and relationships, he is forced to come to grips with Hetfield’s changes, and he doesn’t do so well. He tries guilt and troublemaking to force Hetfield to abandon his structured approah, and when that fails, his frustration builds into a great confrontation bewteen he and Hetfield that pretty much symbolizes the love/hate dynamic that seems to fuel their creative relationship. These are competitive guys, all pushing one another to do better. It is only when they become vulnerable that the toll of that relationship is seen.
I could go on for days. The film is a fascinating must-see… thanks to everyone who sent me to the movies! I am back in the swing and appreciate the advice.
*I want to comment on the Sunshine, one of my favorite places in the city to see a movie. Stadium-ish seating, good popcorn, wasn’t over crowded, people quiet and respectful of the film. I love the interior as well, the industrial design is really cool. I have to go there more often!