There is one problem with the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. "Yeah, I know. It's that word, monster," says the film's co-director Joe Berlinger, alluding to "monsters of rock," the band's popular moniker. "We put that in there for Metallica fans, but I worry it's going to give other people the wrong idea." Indeed, from the title you might presume the movie is a Spinal Tap-ish diary of the world's best-selling heavy-metal band as it plays exotic locales, worships Satan and has sex with groupies on giant piles of cash. Actually, the film is a chronicle of Metallica's group-therapy sessions. "It's very emotional," says Berlinger. "You watch this family tear themselves apart and put themselves back together. There were definitely times when I wondered: Why the hell are they letting us film this?"
When shooting commenced in 2001, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and singer James Hetfield were starting a new album, dealing with the resignation of bassist Jason Newsted, and entering therapy with performance-enhancement coach Phil Towle. With their record label, Elektra, the band hired Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky (Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost) to document the process with an eye toward turning the footage into an infomercial. "You know, sell some albums on TV," says Hammett. "We had no f____ing idea what we were getting ourselves into."
Things went spectacularly wrong or right for the viewer from Day 1. For the first time in its history, the band entered the recording studio with no written material. The jam sessions are excruciating, but not nearly as tough as watching the band members interact. "Back then, I didn't know how to deal with my anger," says Hetfield, 40, who does a fair impression of Stanley Kowalski during the first half of the movie. "I'd bottle it up and then explode on an easy target. Usually Lars." Ulrich, 40, an impish Dane, says, "I always felt it was my duty to be the one guy to stand up to James. So I'd press his buttons." Hammett, 41, shy and soft-spoken, would try to play the peacemaker. "I've always been monkey in the middle," he says.
Nothing, not even Towle and his $40,000-a-month fee, could prevent things from going nuclear. After one particularly brutal argument, Hetfield storms out of the studio and slams the door behind him. Without a word of explanation, he goes into rehab for alcohol addiction and does not return for 11 months. Ulrich and Hammett watch their ex-bassist's new band, Echobrain, and wonder if Metallica are washed up. Ulrich is vilified for taking on the band's file-swapping fans. And when Hetfield finally returns, he tries his best not to scowl. "Every day I thought about telling [the directors] to turn the cameras off," says Hetfield now. "But I was trying to come back as this new person. A more open person. Also, I didn't want to let the band down. At a certain point it's like a dare, just to keep being open no matter who's watching."
Just as daring is the fact that when Elektra expressed doubts about the movie, Metallica bought out the label. "We showed the band footage," says Sinofsky, "and begged them, 'Trust us. You have something special here and it's not an infomercial.'" Metallica wrote a check for $2 million, and shooting continued as the band hashed out its issues and recorded St. Anger, which became its fourth U.S. No. 1 album when it was released worldwide in June 2003. But what's most captivating about Monster is that the camera never looks away and Metallica never hide. Hetfield pouts. Ulrich luxuriates at a New York City auction house while one of his paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat sells for $5.5 million. Hammett is so indecisive that you wonder how he manages to pick a guitar chord. Even performance coach Towle, a middle-aged man in a series of Cosby-meets-Rorschach sweaters, throws a small fit when the subject of curtailing therapy finally arises. "Remember, these guys are our clients," says Berlinger. "And God's honest truth, they never gave us one vanity note not a single instruction to take something out."
Metallica are hardly over their dysfunction. Towle still visits once in a while, and during the band's current 18-month world tour, Ulrich says, "we've had two or three, well, blowups isn't the right word. But right away we were able to sit down and talk it through. We're never going to be the same people, but now we actually appreciate our differences." Those differences are in sharpest relief when they discuss Monster. Ulrich feels "liberated and proud." Hetfield, who began the movie as such an emotional recluse that he barely remembers assenting to do it, says, "It's such a valuable mirror to look in." Hammett still feels violated, and wishes he had "spent a little more time in the grooming department." But he was convinced that tinkering would hurt the movie. "The deeper philosophical message is that if you have problems with the people you love, you can't give up, man," he says. "You've got to be completely honest and work through it. This movie can help a lot of people, so I'll just have to get over looking like a dork. I can make that sacrifice." You'll thank him for it.