Band Aid 

Metallica documentary was a standout at Sundance

Metallica documentary was a standout at Sundance

An odd coincidence that this year’s Sundance standout—much like last year’s unsettling Capturing the Friedmans—is also about a family’s unraveling. Its queasily close camera, self-imposed, seems to spur the members on to painful admissions, while the media eye glares impatiently on the sidelines. Bonds of love are tested, perhaps bruised beyond repair. The only real difference is that this family is comprised of millionaires who rock stadiums.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is, easily, the best film made about a band in crisis, eclipsing Scorsese’s The Last Waltz and even 2002’s Wilco train-wreck I Am Trying to Break Your Heart for brutal honesty and laughs alike. Perhaps a full disclosure is in order: I banged heads with the best of them during a trying ’80s adolescence. But you don’t have to like metal, or even Spinal Tap, to appreciate the intimate pleasures, painstakingly documented, of rehearsal, rehab and relaunch, climaxing in a triumphant post-concert yell by vocalist James Hetfield that speaks volumes of survivor’s pain and hard-earned sacrifice.

Impeccably shaped by co-directors Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger (whose landmark Paradise Lost, a debunking of “metal-inspired” murder, shows similar respect), the drama begins with the band at a precipice. Mired in fruitlessly loud recording sessions at San Francisco’s gated Presidio, their frustrated bass player departed for greener pastures, Metallica seem on the verge of collapse. Enter the sandman, a “performance enhancement coach” engaged full-time at $40,000 a month for in-studio therapy—certainly a first in the history of thrash rock.

It’s here that Some Kind of Monster begins to bloom into something completely original, as unexpectedly rich as Tony Soprano’s fidgety couch sessions. The spectacle of a metal band, even one as relatively smart as Metallica, easing comfortably into touchy-feely psychobabble has no precedent. (“What I’m hearing is...” becomes a common preface from hyperarticulate drummer Lars Ulrich.) You can’t help but salute the band for their honesty as the specters of demanding fathers, abandonment issues and even exiled former soloist Dave Mustaine enter the mix, revealing the messy fabric of private guilt that few anthem bands choose to reveal lyrically.

If that wasn’t enough, the therapist, a staid Kansan named Phil, begins to suffer under the delusion he is the fourth member of the band, contributing lyrics, pep-talks and even an album title that stinks of New Age purging: I Am My Own Best Friend. Eventually, the band can’t stand him; with a magical sense of symmetry enjoyed by too few documentaries, they let him go and suddenly they are healed. “Rock and roll isn’t about rules!” vents a fuming Ulrich at a peak moment of frustration, but when the stakes are personal happiness and the long-term relations of adults, a few rules don’t seem to hurt one bit.

—Joshua Rothkopf

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