Director: Joe Berlinger
It can’t be said enough – you don’t have to like Metallica to like this documentary. Personally, I think their music is awful, but that’s part of the fun here.
During the period this film covers (2000 – 2003), the band went through a bit of an identity crisis. Struggling to record a new album, they battled with such pressures as their lead singer (James Hetfield) going into rehab, family commitments, creative blocks and a legal battle with the online music streaming service Napster (remember Napster?).
Such are the troubles of a bunch of terminally adolescent multi-millionaires. For a good portion of this film, the temptation is strong to just shout “Oh, grow up!” at the screen. It’s hard to maintain any kind of affinity with them when, for example, Hetfield misses his son’s first birthday to go bear hunting in Siberia. Or when drummer Lars Ulrich laments the fact he has to sell some of his art collection to make more room in his house. (He makes a few million at the auction, which eases the pain a bit).
But there are also cutting truths on show here, and it’s a credit to the band that they allowed this highly unflattering view of them to go on show. There are plenty of tantrums and tears (Hetfield has a childish habit of slamming the door when he leaves a room if he doesn’t get his way). The most incongruous (and un-rock’n’roll) element is the hiring of a band therapist (on an eye-watering $40,000 a month!) who becomes an unlikely addition to the band dynamic. Things get too far when he starts hanging out at the studio with them and helping to write their lyrics, and the scene where they attempt to explain to him they no longer need his services is comedy platinum.
So ultimately it’s a film about how being in a band makes people into children. (And there are fewer films more truthful about band dynamics). But it also holds a big mirror up to anyone watching it, to allow you to reflect on your own childish behaviour. We all want a gang, to feel like we belong somewhere. We’re all raging against our own obsolescence. We’ve all been in pressure cooker situations where we feel things are out of our control.
The sign of a clever film is when it flips like this. You see comedy turn to tragedy, and you start to empathise.
Probably the most touching moment is when Lars meets up with his dad, to play him some of the album tracks in progress. All of a sudden he’s ten years old again, awkwardly shuffling, avoiding eye contact and visibly aching for some approval that he’s making something of value. His dad’s dismissiveness (“Delete that”, is how he describes one of the songs, in one of many highly quotable lines in the film) is truly heartbreaking.
After all the fall-outs and delays (they end up spending a couple of years working on the album), there’s a ray of sunshine in the final act, when they audition new bass players and find one who is just comically perfect for them. They instantly gel, and up their game. Rejuvenated once more, the power of being in a gang and feeling a hundred feet tall is rekindled, and is a joy to watch.
I’ve touched on many of the notable incidents in this film, but there’s far more treasure to uncover by watching it. I’d say it’s an important film if you’re at all interested in how men act with each other (and it is ALL men). And if you’ve ever been in a band yourself, it’s downright essential viewing.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Anvil, This Is Spinal Tap, DiG!