Behind The Metäl

'Anger' management: Joe Berlinger (standing behind camera) deals with the noise at Metallica's HQ
Annamaria DiSanto courtesy of IFC Films

Durham, North Carolina--

It's past midnight at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and Joe Berlinger is looking weary. "There was a little too much laughter for me," the filmmaker confesses to the audience of cineastes and metälheads who've stuck around for the Q&A after the late festival screening of his epic Metallica movie. "I feel thrown for a loop."

Funny that a director would feel thrown by hearing an audience enjoy itself--especially since Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, made by Berlinger and his longtime collaborator Bruce Sinofsky (Brother's Keeper was the pair's debut), has been shot and cut expressly to accentuate the laughs (of which there are plenty). Just one example: The close-up of drummer Lars Ulrich's dad--a dead ringer for Gandalf--stroking his long white beard and struggling to tell his boy that the band's latest track is an aural shit sandwich rivals even a certain mock-rock doc for behind-the-metal humor. And yet the funniest thing about this two-and-a-half-hour study of millionaire rock stars banging their heads for two years trying to make a record is that it might well be the movie of the year. I'm serious--and, believe it or not, so is the film.

"It's about human growth and creative relationships," Berlinger tells me the day after the screening. "It's about dealing with your inner demons. In a very real way, it's about the downside of rock and roll."

So it is. And let me add: Some Kind of Monster is also about the incestuous relationship between psychology and creativity--or, if you prefer, between neurosis and noodling. In the case of Metallica, a global moneymaking machine whose members are worth tens of millions apiece, that relationship is complicated further by the band's privilege to avoid deadlines--to avoid creative work entirely. No wonder it takes the group more than 600 days to deliver the 11 earsplitting tracks on St. Anger: This is art making when virtually everything--save inspiration (and talent?)--lies within the artist's hands. (If ever a documentary needed to be too long, it's this one.)

In the movie, money is depicted as both a blessing and a curse. For one thing, it allows Metallica to hire an absurdly expensive, hilariously ineffectual "performance enhancement coach" to serve as surrogate producer and communication facilitator ("You want to talk about that?"). The shrink's first job in the studio is to help the band create its mission statement: "We have learned and we understand. Now we must share. We come together for our album of life." (Talk about Tapping into the source. How much more inane could this declaration be? The answer is none: none more inane.)

Observing the project was a kind of therapy for Berlinger, too--a means for him to crawl out of the black hole that was Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which he made without Sinofsky in 2000. "Artisan [Entertainment] took a cautionary tale about the dangers of blurring fact and fiction and turned it into a teen slasher movie," says Berlinger. "The reviews were like personal attacks. It was painful. At my lowest point, I put on a tape of Paradise Lost to try to remind myself that I had made a good movie once. As soon as I heard [Metallica's] "Sanitarium" on the soundtrack, I called Lars, who told me that the band was just beginning a new album. Bruce and I took our gear out to San Francisco and started shooting. We didn't know we'd be there for two and a half years."

Among the countless conflicts that Metallica captures with near-unprecedented clarity for a celebrity doc is the one between Ulrich and addiction-addled frontman James Hetfield--"an upper-middle-class, highly educated Danish fellow and a Southern redneck guy," as Berlinger puts it. Behind the scenes, the temperamentally opposite documentarians were not only struggling to remain true to a body of work that turns the viewer's prejudices inside out, but struggling, like Hetfield and Ulrich, to remain partners.

"Bruce and I were having growing pains," says Berlinger. "We had been making films together since 1990 when we were both at Maysles [Films]. By 2000 or so, we were getting sick of each other--for lots of good reasons. So for us to be together making this film, witnessing these guys deal with their collaboration issues, naturally inspired us to get a lot of shit off our chests. There were all these ego issues: What does he really do and what do I really do? But the fact is that when you throw us together, for some reason magic happens. And it's like that for Lars and James. In terms of their genre of music, those guys are the Lennon and McCartney of their generation."

Sorry, Joe--but that's funny.

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