directed by Stacy Peralta
METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER
directed by Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky
by Walter Chaw Skateboard legend Stacy Peralta's follow-up to his highly-regarded Dogtown & Z-Boys is the big wave surfing documentary Riding Giants. Equal parts ecstatic archival sports video and hagiography of the pioneers of the deep water (a new meaning for "swells"), its strengths are the same as those for Dogtown: a great soundtrack, and a sense of kinetic energy that manages to confer, at least in fits and starts, the breathlessness of the subject to an enraptured audience. But it lacks the background sociology of Peralta's prior work, failing for the most part to explain how the surf culture came to be even as it offers a survey history of the entire pastime. The film is strong on the usual suspects and the dazzling locations--and weak on the kind of lawlessness and maniacal urge to rebel that created something like an extreme beach Woodstock almost twenty years before our collective cultural dam broke. Just mentioning the Beat Poets is not enough.
What was it that drove some two-dozen white-bread American kids to the beaches of California and Hawaii in the early-Fifties? There's a suggestion in Riding Giants that the staidness of the Ozzie and Harriet '50s fomented their desire to hightail it out of Maplewood for the endorphin highway of the high seas. Yet, while perhaps closest to the truth, the Everest rationale--"because it's there"--still doesn't do much in the way of edifying for the non-believer what it is about the pursuit of death that so entices. Philosophically-speaking, it makes a little bit of sense, knowing life close to death and all that--I have no doubt as to the authenticity of the religious experience, but apart from a brief history of the sport's Polynesian origins and some truly fascinating archival footage shot on 16mm film, there's not much there, there.
Just the idea that these surf punks were filming themselves and traveling around with what is essentially their home movies is an enticing topic. So are the trials and tribulations of the girls who love them, watching their men essentially go off to war every time the tide comes in. I wanted more time on the periphery and less with the actual surfers, who convey joy while providing very little perspective for the average person. Riding Giants is similar to Fahrenheit 9/11 in that way: it already has its audience and it preaches a fine sermon. Without a real gateway into their world, we have to take the surfers at their word, and I'm sure they'd be the first to tell you that their actions are more eloquent than their testimonials.
Same goes for the bedraggled members of super-metal group Metallica, who, after their long-time bassist Jason Newsted splits because of those fabled "creative differences," seek the counsel of a group therapist with an uncanny resemblance to Lance Henriksen and a fee of forty-grand per week. Neither terribly articulate nor gifted with introspection, bandmates Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, and Kirk Hammett attempt to hammer out their differences as their careers swish around in the toilet. Hetfield goes into a year-long rehab in the middle of recording their latest album, "St. Anger", and Hammett spouts Buddhist bon mots before catching a wave.
It's This is Spinal Tap mixed with liberal doses of Dr. Phil as these giants of metal whine like they've been scripted by the idiot writers of "Mad About You". Way too long at over two hours and done better in Sam Jones's little-seen Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster shows the icons at work first in the abandoned Presidio military base, then at studio HQ, coming up with their lousy lyrics collectively while their music--once groundbreaking in its complexity and thrash-lyricism--betrays the wear and tear of decades detached from "the people" who made them godheads. The main conflicts are between Ulrich and Hetfield, with the most charged moment one in which Ulrich chants "fuck" like a mantra, getting all up in Hetfield's shit.
The Napster debacle wherein Metallica, spearheaded by Ulrich, took aim at file-sharers (making Ulrich the most hated person on the planet for a while), is intercut with a Christie's auction at which Ulrich sells a few of his Basquiats, one for the princely sum of five-million dollars. The divorce between penniless Joe College Student downloading "Master of Puppets" and Ulrich, et al, selling off their wall-hangings for surreal amounts of money and giving their new bassist (a stunned looking Robert Trujillo) a signing bonus of one million bucks begins to look like Nietzsche's abyss. It's trite to say it, but I'll take these guys' problems over mine in a heartbeat.
The title of the film refers to a recurring motif of Frankenstein's monsters composed of mismatched parts: a metaphor for the band, for the process of creating one of their albums, and finally for the film itself. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Paradise Lost) intrude at one point as characters, pleading their case for a continuation of filming when Hetfield gets a little "fearful" of their intrusion. Though the problem of documentary film and the role of the documentary filmmaker in his or her creation has never been more current than it is now in our Fahrenheit 9/11 state, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (like Riding Giants) lacks the focus to bring this into relief. There's a story in here, no question, but in trying to tell every story from every angle, all those moments of brilliance are buried under repetition and, eventually, tedium.
In the case of either film, Riding Giants or Some Kind of Monster, one tries to ferret out why it is that any of the subjects wanted to have a film made of them in the first place. For the surfers, who immortalized themselves in a lot ways, the urge for a legacy outside the insular surf culture is an understandable one--but for Metallica, possibly the most revered band of its kind in the history of music of its kind, the desire to have themselves splayed bare on a celluloid frame is a far trickier one to pinpoint. It might have something to do with pathological self-promotion, or it might have something to do with greed (and Berlinger/Sinofsky should be commended for suggesting both). It might even boil down to the group being genuinely interested in working through their problems in an open and safe environment. It's a slippery fish, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, a movie about narcissism that indulges that narcissism--vindicated by our decision to pay a few bucks for the honour, and then spending a lot of time dissecting it afterwards. As author Mike Daisey once said, just because you get the joke doesn't mean they're not laughing at you. Originally published: July 30, 2004.