The Decline of Western Civilization Part IV: The Midlife Years

Heavy-metal gods get in touch with their feelings. No, it's not Spinal Tap. Or not quite.

BAND THERAPY? Aren't the sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll enough? Evidently not, judging by Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Pacific Place, 9:30 p.m. Mon., June 7; and Egyptian, 6 p.m. Sun., June 13), a fly-on-the-wall portrait of arguably the most important touring band in metaldom. When Metallica entered the studio in January 2001 to record what became 2003's Grammy-winning St. Anger, they invited along filmmakers Joel Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose excellent docs Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost had impressed the band. Initially hired to make a kind of behind-the-scenes infomercial, the co-directors ended up recording a heavy-metal meltdown after bass player Jason Newsted quit. To keep the still-profitable, million-selling group together, its managers brought in a therapist, Dr. Phil Towle, who becomes a central element from the start of Monster. Soothingly smooth-voiced and very nonmetal, he's like Yoko among the Beatles. The three remaining band members then alternate recording and therapy sessions in San Francisco, which Berlinger and Sinofsky minutely follow—until vocalist-guitarist James Hetfield abruptly checks himself into rehab for 11 months, casting the future of the group into doubt. The cameras keep running and running, until Hetfield's return—seemingly a very different man, which creates still more tensions for Dr. Towle to address. (The filming lasted almost two years.) Yes, metalheads, there are some old performance clips and samples from the new album, but for nonheadbangers, the appeal of Monster lies in its very ordinariness. It's a talky movie about talk therapy, weirdly engrossing for those who have a fair amount of patience for therapy-speak. (Those who don't can roll their eyes with Hetfield—initially the most resistant of the bandmates to open up.) ON A RECENT Sunday, I descended into the bowels of KeyArena, where Metallica were to perform that evening, and spoke to lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. Were he, Hetfield, and drummer Lars Ulrich worried about looking like Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and company in the documentary? Hammet laughs. "Spi¨nal Tap is one of my favorite movies, and if it turned out like Spi¨nal Tap, that would be a great thing!" More seriously, he admits, "There was a tremendous amount of risk being taken. This could've become just a big fucking farce. I'm always kind of wary and skeptical of cameramen. Our band has always had this illusion that we're invincible and bulletproof and larger than life. We're Metallica, the big macho heavy-metal band who's sold umpteen millions of records. I think this movie really humanizes us and shows people we're just like everyone else who has the same struggles." Forget Hammett's onstage persona as a flamboyant soloist and string-bending banshee. Thoughtful and soft-spoken in person, he comes across in Monster as the sensitive New Age guy in Metallica—and the member most favorably disposed toward the annoying Dr. Towle. (Here again, viewers may roll their eyes with Hetfield at Hammett's puppy-dog earnestness.) Hammett gratefully recalls of the sessions, "That turned into a catalyst for us to open up to each other on a level that we never, ever opened up [before]. [Dr. Towle] helped the three of us reconnect. And also to ease us and James back into this thing called Metallica." This thing called Metallica? It sounds a little less thingy and Tap-ish in person. Hammett is obviously a true believer in healing and wholeness (in the movie, he surfs and rides around on horseback), but he's also a 40-year-old who's done some pretty hard living in 20 years of heavy metal. The recovery jargon means a little more when you've actually got something to recover from. And Hammett wasn't always into the touchy-feely stuff, he admits: "Honestly, I always pictured therapy as being a sign of weakness or a sign of not being responsible for your own actions. There's a stigma that comes with the word . . . [but] therapy has saved Metallica. [Dr. Towle] was really, really essential for that period." Of the latter portions of Monster, he adds, "By the same token, his role had run its course." Now that Metallica are "much more even-keeled, much more congruent," Dr. Towle is out of a job. But I think I know just what heavy-metal act he could help next.

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