With Spinal Tap, it was drummers. Intentionally or not, the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster keeps evoking This Is Spinal Tap, the faux documentary about a rock group that hemorrhages percussionists. Metallica's personnel crisis is over bass players, but much else is the same: the baroque hairstyles, the snits that evolve into longstanding resentments and, above all, the unflinching solemnity with which Metallica's permanent members discuss their work.
You'd be solemn, too. One of the most successful groups to emerge from the 1980s metal revival, Metallica produces music with a fierce integrity that has kept the group respectable, even as pop-metal excess drove competitors like Poison and Warrant toward bubblegum insignificance. Metallica's CDs sell in the zillions, but alt-rock dabblings in the 1990s alienated some fans, as did the group's 2000 campaign to keep their music from being traded on Napster, the then-illicit Internet music service.
So much was at stake when, in 2001, Metallica began recording what would become the 2003 release St. Anger. Fatefully, the group allowed the documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to film the sessions (and, endlessly, the meetings surrounding them - this rock movie could use, as the radio people say, more rock and less talk). In films like Paradise Lost and Brother's Keeper, Berlinger and Sinofsky examined troubling events and teased out threads of ambiguity and uncertainty. So the Metallica boys must have known Berlinger and Sinofsky's film would be anything but VH1-banal.
And the filmmakers probably never dreamed they would be privy to such juicy stuff. As the sessions begin, Metallica looks, after 20 years of recording and touring, to be suffering from a collective case of nerves. The group hires a therapist to help manage their differences and tap creative energies, but by the time singer and guitarist James Hetfield decamps for rehab, halfway through the film, Metallica's future looks bleak. In scenes reminiscent of Let It Be, the film that documents the Beatles' demise, Metallica members angrily swap insults and slam doors.
Of course, the sessions were ultimately successful, a fact foretold early on in snippets of television interviews promoting the new album. But it's clear that recording St. Anger was dismally frustrating for the band's members, especially Hetfield and cofounder and drummer Lars Ulrich. Like John Lennon and Paul McCartney before them (not to mention Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins), Hetfield and Ulrich were just kids when they started their band, and in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, their marriage is showing its age.