Saturday, November 29, 2008

Monsters, Inc.

Imagine it’s 1983 and you go to your local mall. You walk past those organs that play themselves to the Record Town or Tape World. You’re looking for something new and the pale clerk with the Dungeons and Dragons t-shirt shows you the debut album of a band whose cassette cover displays a hammer and a pool of blood with the title “Kill ’Em All.”
You purchase the tape and bring it home, cracking open the plastic wrapping, and slide it into your tape deck. You push play and the first thing you hear is an electric guitar getting its neck strangled. “We are gonna kick some ass tonight!” “Hit the Lights” starts out and goes on to tell you that you are going to have your brain ripped out. “It is causing you sweet pain.” And it is. It is Metallica.
Now, regardless of how you feel about Metallica and what they have evolved into, imagine watching them sit around on couches discussing their feelings for two hours and twenty minutes. Because that’s basically what Some Kind of Monster is.

The title of the documentary comes from a conversation early in the movie where they’re kicking around ideas for lyrics about Frankenstein’s monster. You’re not really sure how overtly aware they are of its metaphor for the band. But over the course of the movie we get to see how a doctor (therapist Phil Towle) tries to cobble together autonomous parts into a synergistic whole, a monster that has been functioning but has gotten ill and is threatening to fall apart.
The film is directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the dudes who directed Brother’s Keeper. What Brother’s Keeper did for fratricide and bluegrass music, Some Kind of Monster does for rock stars and heavy metal. They both show taken-for-granted stereotypes and bust them wide open.

I don’t care if you don’t like speed metal. You still don’t want to see the lead singer of such a band throw around such clichéd phrases as: “My wanting to keep everything under control, and, you know… It’s out of a fear of my abandonment issues.” You don’t want to hear the Danishly cool drummer say things like “I’ve always felt that James was a softer, more caring, compassionate person than he allowed himself to be to most people.” What you expect from heavy metal rockers is the kind of stuff Metallica has served up for so many years. Angst, anger, bat-head biting (ok, so that was Ozzy Osbourne), drunkenness, and the occasional meditation on Armageddon.
It’s like they want to be two things at the same time. They want the hardened sound that prompts them to title the album they’re working on “St. Anger.” But they also want to make a documentary that records their pathos-laden mission statement:
“We come now to create our album of life. Throughout our individual and collective journeys, sometimes through pain and conflict, we’ve discovered the true meaning of family. As we accomplish ultimate togetherness, we become healers of ourselves and the countless who embrace us and our message. We have learned and we understand; now we must share.” At least lead singer, James Hetfield, gives away his feelings with a shit-eating grin, knowing how corny that mission statement sounds.
“I think this is really fucking lame,” ex-bass-guitarist, Jason Newsted, says. But maybe he’s just jealous because no one is making a documentary about him.
Dave Mustaine, another ex-member of Metallica and frontman of rival band Megadeth, gets to sit down with drummer Lars Ulrich and hash out his feelings of betrayal and always being the underdog.
If the documentary wasn’t saturated with staccato guitar riffs and machine gun drumming, you would have a feature-length Dr. Phil show.
About half way through, it gets very meta when the band sits down with the filmmakers and discuss whether or not there even is going to be a film. It could almost have been directed by Lars von Trier.

It is not all therapeutic expurgation of feelings, however. They do try to get some work done. We already know they’re going to release “St. Anger” by the end of the film. But they are trying to do things differently on so many levels. They are attempting to collaborate for the first time. Their method has always been that each member was responsible to bring certain things to the table and no one could challenge the other’s input. But now each member would have equal say. This leads to problems. When Lars wants to push for innovation in drumming style he accuses the guitar riffing as sounding stock. Lead guitarist, Kirk Hammett, doesn’t want to be stymied by what Metallica has always done nor does he want to serve trends. And Hetfield takes everything personally and storms out of the studio.
“This is a fucking rock and roll band. I don’t want fucking rules,” Ulrich complains.
Another first for the band has come about through the therapy documented in the film and Hetfield’s rehabilitation process. It is an unorthodox concept that Ulrich summarizes succinctly: “You can make aggressive music without negative energy.”

Despite being together for over two decades and becoming more and more mainstream, Hetfield shows an unbelievable amount of naiveté re: “the business.”
Q Prime, Metallica’s management team, is trying to convince them to do awful radio promos to protect them from being blacklisted.
“People would do that?” Hetfield asks as if he doesn’t know the answer. “Because you didn’t give us something we’re going to fuck you?” And the representative for Q Prime says without pause, “Yes, James. They would.”
It provides good lyrics: “I’ll wash your back so you won’t stab mine” and it segues into Hammett reading a copy of Fortune magazine with The Rolling Stones on the cover.

It’s hard to tell what kind of monster Metallica has accepted itself to be. They clearly understand themselves as a concept.
“There is almost nothing there that can’t be turned into something better than it is, or something that could probably get pretty fuckin’ close to being something on a Metallica record.”
They accept their nomination by MTV as icons of rock and roll. They know that Metallica is a monstrous force that even they as frail human individuals can’t completely destroy.
It isn’t exactly surprising that despite all the time that has passed since their first insistence of “lethal power” and their claims against negative energy, the last forty words on “St. Anger” are “kill.”
But you can’t kill the monster.

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