Countless rock films start with rousing shots of a band onstage, then tell the artists' stories through a combination of interviews, concert scenes and fly-on-the-wall footage. Not "Some Kind of Monster," a movie about the hardships, struggles and frustrations Metallica experienced while creating St. Anger.
"Our mantra in the editing room was, 'Our film ends where most concert films begin,' " said director Joe Berlinger, who created the film with partner Bruce Sinofsky over the past two and a half years. "The last scene of the movie is Metallica taking the stage in Europe for the first time in three years. Before that, you see all the stuff that happened after the band started to work on St. Anger, and a lot of it is heavy stuff that would have sunk many other bands."
Berlinger and Sinofsky are accomplished documentarians whose résumé includes the acclaimed documentary "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," and they weren't interested in the normal rock-movie fare.
"On the surface it's about the making of St. Anger, but it's much more a film about human relationships and the creative process," Berlinger said. "It asks how you manage the multiple issues of being big rock stars while approaching middle age, being fathers and not wanting to party the way you used to party. And most importantly, how do you stay vital musically when you're incredibly successful?"
Berlinger and Sinofsky first met the band when Metallica gave the pair permission to use their music in "Paradise Lost." Drummer Lars Ulrich, who's a film buff, spoke with the pair about collaborating, but they were unable to coordinate their schedules until 2001.
The directors entered the project thinking it would be an intriguing diversion from their loftier material but soon discovered it would become one of their most intimate, revelatory projects to date. The duo were granted unlimited access to the band, and during their time behind the camera they shot 1,200 hours of material.
Filming began shortly after bassist Jason Newsted quit the band, and the movie includes footage of Ulrich's crusade against Napster, the band's struggle with musical direction, frontman James Hetfield's battle with alcoholism, and the interpersonal conflicts that erupt between musicians who have worked together for over 20 years. (Click for 20 years of Metallica photos, tickets and posters.)
Early on in "Some Kind of Monster," the bandmembers discuss their problems with a therapist. "James and Lars talk about how they've never discussed their feelings towards each other," Berlinger said. "It's been very competitive between the two of them over the years, and they could never acknowledge to each other what each of them brings to the table."
Following one of those meetings, Hetfield decided to check into rehab to clean up. Suddenly, the Metallica machine was again on hold. Then, when Hetfield finally returned, he dropped a bombshell on his already frustrated bandmates.
"James says he can only work from 12 to 4 during the day because that's part of his rehab program, and he doesn't want people to listen to [any of the] music while he's gone," Berlinger revealed. "Lars gets really fed up and lets it all hang out and literally yells right into his face after a huge emotional buildup. There was so much unspoken tension between these guys for 20 years, and it all comes pouring out."
During filming, the members came to some important realizations about themselves and their music. Much of the movie shows Metallica in the kind of unflinching light publicists and managers usually try to shut off, and as a result, the film offers viewers the kind of emotional and human insight the normally guarded band has never before exposed.
"For a good half of the film, these guys are not likeable because they're constantly squabbling with each other," Berlinger said. "Some people might think they're spoiled babies because the idea of heavy metal stars in therapy is something people are cynical about. But I think instead of being reduced to media stereotypes, you see the fullness of who these people are and you forget that they're rock stars and you see them as regular people."
Berlinger and Sinofsky have submitted "Some Kind of Monster" to the Sundance Film festival for consideration, and they have distributors interested in releasing the movie, which should be in theaters by March. Berlinger expects the movie to show across the country, but possibly not all at once. Metallica's management is considering releasing the movie to cities a week or two before the band's tour plays there.
Meanwhile, Berlinger is writing a book that'll document his experience in greater detail. "It will be designed to tie into the DVD release of the film, which will be in late summer or early fall of next year," he said. "The movie gives a really great portrait of these guys, but we shot 1,200 hours of material, and now the film is a hair over two hours long. There's so much more to tell."
For more from Metallica on the ups and downs of their career, check out "Metallica: The 'mtvICON' Interviews."