All That Glitters: Bringing Back Metallica

By Atkinson, Roland | Clinical Psychiatry News, December 2004 | Go to article overview

All That Glitters: Bringing Back Metallica


Atkinson, Roland, Clinical Psychiatry News


In 2001, the legendary heavy metal rock band Metallica reached the nadir of its 20-year association. No recent albums or tours. Heck, band members were barely able to speak to one another. Their managers, worried that a major cash cow was going mad, brought in Phil Towle, a self-proclaimed "performance enhancement coach," to shore up relations among the band members. A new album and tour were envisioned. And film-makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (who had made the provocative crime documentaries "Brother's Keeper" and "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills") were hired to make a promotional film covering the recording sessions and tour.

Before group sessions with Towle could even begin, however, longtime bass player Jason Newsted quit the band. (Metallica producer Bob Rock, a journeyman bassist himself, was tapped to fill in for the album.) The film gradually morphed into a documentary, the recently released "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," a rare fly-on-the-wall chronicle that is part psychodrama, part musical odyssey. The film follows the band for 2 years as the players struggle to create new songs while living through a period of acrimony and doubts about their future. It's long (135 minutes), but the film succeeds in showing how tough a craft music making can be for a group seeking to rediscover itself.

It is clear from the get-go that the two original organizers, lead vocalist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, are both heavyweight personalities with world-class alpha male egos. And neither is a happy camper. They grumble and glower. They are also both approaching 40, with responsibilities like wives and houses and little kids. Life isn't just about the band anymore.

Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett is a different sort, an outwardly relaxed, go-along, get-along fellow who, mercifully, never adds to the tensions, though he does chirp once or twice that he wishes the others would listen to his ideas now and then.

Bob Rock stays in the background. Not long into this project, Hetfield abruptly leaves to enter a 3-month alcoholism rehab program that stretches out to a year.

The filmmakers use this limbo period to advantage, filling in the band's history and profiling its members' current lives. There's a particularly absorbing segment when Ulrich's father comes from Denmark to visit. He's a skinny, gnomish guy, with long gray hair and a beard, and he spares nothing in pronouncing judgments on the quality of some of the new album's tracks. You can see where Lars gets his self-assertiveness.

When Hetfield returns, he immediately tries to take charge once again, insisting on 4-hour workdays and forbidding the others to make decisions about the music or even review tracks in his absence. This is way over the top for Ulrich, who makes his finest speech in protest at a group meeting with Towle, telling Hetfield that he tries to control everyone in every way, even by his absences. This seems to be a turning point. Hetfield backs off. Things get less bumpy; he and Ulrich begin to reach consensus about the songs.

Near the end, the album wraps, a permanent bass player (Robert Trujillo) is chosen, and in the final scenes we see the start of the new tour. The group's cohesion and synergy appear to be restored, perhaps even enhanced by Trujillo, a wildly energetic yet gentle showman.

What about Phil Towle? We see a lot of him in the film. He seems to be more or less encamped with the band, present during rehearsals and recording sessions as well as in round-the-table, therapy-style group discussions. He's about 65, slightly built, and typically dresses in geezer sweaters and slacks. He nearly always comports himself in a quiet, unassuming manner. Much of the time he says nothing, and when he does speak, his comments are brief and simple. There's little evidence of anything flashy, no psycho-judo, in his technique. Once he does get on a kick about creating a "zone" for positive work in the studio. …

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