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Between Rock and a Hard Place 

Troubles of Metallica detailed in piercing documentary

They may not be as famous as Michael Moore, but Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have quietly been making documentaries every bit as compelling as Moore's incendiary output. Best known for 1992's Brother's Keeper and 1996's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, the pair have now released Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, which opens in Charlotte this Friday.

Berlinger and Sinofsky spent three years and filmed hundreds of hours of footage in their attempt to piece together a picture about the world's most successful heavy metal band. Rather than just serving as a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the group's "comeback" album St. Anger, the movie instead evolved into a fascinating exploration of how the members of the band -- lead singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and producer (and fill-in bassist) Bob Rock -- dealt with internal bickering and outside conflicts on their way to producing a hit album.

Rather than just offer a straight review, we elected to get CL's music writers involved in the analysis of the film. Here, then, is the "e-chat" between film reviewer (and on-the-fly moderator) Matt Brunson and music critics John Schacht and Timothy C. Davis.

Brunson: Before catching this film, what were your general feelings about the band?

Davis: I grew up a fan of Metallica -- they provided the necessary clang and thrash that pairs so well with adolescent angst (not to mention three-quarter sleeve T-shirts and high school smoking areas). Their personalities I always considered secondary, but when I thought of them at all, it was as good-time party boys. Say what you want about them, but they basically started thrash metal as we know (love/loathe) it...

Schacht: I might have gone through my angst period slightly before Metallica, yet they managed to earn my respect throughout the first decade of their career even though I wasn't much of a metalhead anymore. I mean, Master of Puppets, besides being fun to say, was a really strong record by any yardstick. But with most of their 90s records, they became a parody of themselves and the genre, and when Ulrich took the lead role in the RIAA's attack on Napster and 12-year-olds, most of my respect went out the window.

Brunson: And your opinions of the movie?

Davis: I had heard that film wags liked it, so I was expecting it to be halfway decent. I was sort of shocked at how good it was, however. I think, if anything, the film showed these guys as what they are -- pretty normal Joes, when you get down to it. They formed the band as kids in Frisco with the express purpose of simply rocking out, and now they're all multi- (multi-, multi-) millionaires because of it. I don't think they ever expected all this, which, of course, has led to some tense situations. These guys are almost like second family to each other -- especially Ulrich and Hetfield -- and sometimes families have disagreements, slam doors, and yell "fuck!" as loud as they can. Not my family, mind you, but a lot of families.

Schacht: I too was surprised by how well done it was, and also how it actually managed a good amount of poignancy. I'd say it could have lost 20-to-30 minutes of the 2:20 run time without anyone really noticing, but I was entertained throughout. I think one thing that stood out, aside from what Tim was saying about how these guys are still recognizable as fellow human beings, is just how stinkin' rich these particular fellow human beings are. One of my favorite scenes was when their old bassist, Jason Newsted, waves off Metallica's problems by reminding them how many "squillions" of dollars they have. I mean, that's how wealthy these guys are: They had to create a new made-up word -- "squillions" -- cuz "gazillion" and "bazillion" weren't enough.

Brunson: I was also impressed by the film; it's a compelling documentary that allows us exposure to musicians in a more personal manner than usual. It's one thing to hear secondhand that, say, Blondie had internal riffs on a VH-1 special and quite another to actually see Lars Ulrich put his face just inches away from James Hetfield's and scream "Fuck!" at the top of his lungs. The immediacy of the piece was often startling, and despite the presence of the cameras, these guys never seemed to be "performing" -- it was raw and real.

All of the people who wander through the film seem interesting, but which character did you each find most memorable?

Davis: I'd have to vote for two people: Phil Towle, the $40,000-a-month psychologist, and Kirk Hammett, the band's guitar player. Towle was more of a facilitator, leading these guys out of the abyss (and thus making himself irrelevant), whereas Hammett was more the voice of reason: "Hey guys, we've been together 20 years, we're squillionaires, and life is good. Let's just get together and be cool to each other and put all that energy into our music!"

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