Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

VH1 goes Behind the Music and finds a new set of American fables

Consider the Metallica bio, which makes intelligible what I'd always dismissed as a thuddingly humorless techie band. Their fans' clannish loyalty makes perfect sense, however, when explored from the inside: They demanded Metallica's existence just as the band members needed each other, molding living community from a worldwide assortment of weirdo subcultures. Danish drummer Lars Ulrich's dad is a freaky-haired hippie more out-there than his offspring; singer/guitarist James Hetfield, by reputation a loudmouth redneck, turns funny and reflective about his Christian Science upbringing in Southern California; and the father of deceased original bassist Cliff Burton, despite the upright carriage and no-bullshit demeanor of a retired military man, reminisces fondly about his son's chronic head-banging injuries. You even understand why the quartet has clung so desperately to near-classical compositions--music that represents everything worth saying about why they joined a metal band in the first place.

The acknowledged peak of Behind the Music is, of course, the Milli Vanilli hour. Tragedy or farce--both, really--the show traces the incredible (but true!) career trajectory of these well-built Belgian mannequins who found themselves megastars in 1989 and international laughingstocks two years later. (So complete was their humiliation that one could return the band's CDs for a refund, as if the music contained on them had somehow become less entertaining.) Interviewed for the documentary, they seem befuddled even now by what exactly happened.

Yet both members exude a dignity and even a rueful humor about their precipitous decline--qualities that make it difficult not to take their side against exploitative producers who made them something they never meant to be, and mean-spirited critics who carped about authenticity from an act that had made no pretenses to same. As is often the case, the punishment far exceeded the crime. And then Rob Pilatus turned up dead in a Frankfurt hotel room, victim of a perhaps intentional overdose--occasioning a VH1 special on his life alone that adds yet another wrinkle to a story already twisted far beyond belief.

Behind the sneer: James Hetfield and the family Metallica
Behind the sneer: James Hetfield and the family Metallica

At once completely unimportant and emotionally ravishing, this modern morality tale allows us to inscribe it with whatever significance we need. Is it a fable of racial exploitation? A warning on the wages of sin? A glimpse of the transience of fame? Proof that no one goes broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public?

In the end, the Milli Vanilli story, like almost every peek behind the music, is neither heartwarming nor heartbreaking but something better: human. Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, they speak for you?


Behind the Music's Teen Idol Week airs next week; check listings.

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