Somewhere in the back of everyone’s mind is a big dream. It might be publishing a popular novel or founding a successful company. It might be playing in the greatest metal band on earth. Many let the realities of life push those dreams further and further down a growing list of priorities. Others strive toward them. For these people, the dream serves as a beacon that provides life with direction. A lucky few actually even reach that beacon. Dream becomes reality. That’s when the true challenge begins.
One of the defining characteristics of the human heart is its constant discontentment. As Freud says, “We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things.” We experience intense happiness from reaching our desired destination and very little happiness from actually being there. When a dreamer’s great dream materializes, he basks in the glory of his achievement for a while before a sinking feeling dulls the joy. One day he realizes that all that’s left is a single, nagging question: now what? That great guiding light of the big dream has been extinguished, and now he must scramble around in the dark to find a new source of meaning in life. It’s not easy.
At the start of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 2004 documentary, the metal mega-band Metallica finds itself in just such a situation. At the opening of the film, in 2001, the band has existed for almost two decades. They’ve cut seven albums and sold tens of millions of records. They’ve won a handful of Grammys. They have millions of adoring fans. And yet, they’re unhappy. As the film opens, the band members look both exhausted and afraid. You can sense anxiety pervading every moment. You can see that they’re haunted by their legacy of success and the uncharted terrain that lies ahead. Early in the film, James Hetfield, Metallica’s lead singer, is asked what he’s dreading. He replies,
“I didn’t have anything, or wasn’t inspired enough to have something or letting down the team or some vibe like that.”
It’s clear that he’s feeling anxiety but can’t pinpoint it. One can only imagine that he’s looking back over his long, successful career and worrying that he’s past his peak. When drummer Lars Ulrich describes a similar feeling, the team’s coach Phil cuts right to the heart of the issue:
“When we’re up against a fear, that’s the time to move into it forward because there’s going to be some kind of genius there or some kind of breakthrough”
There’s a moment where this anxiety is particularly evident. Midway through the film, Jason Newsted, the recently departed bassist of Metallica, debuts with his new band Echobrain. The music sounds fresh and energetic. The audience roars. After the show, members of Metallica look numb, as though they’ve just been condemned to execution.
“Jason is the future. Metallica’s the past,” laments a defeated looking Lars Ulrich, watching the act pack up.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is the story of these men finding direction in their lives again. It’s the story of staring into the spiritual abyss left by achieving a dream and forging a way through it to new creative heights. The process isn’t pretty. Each member is left pondering the meaning, not only of Metallica, but also of his own life. After pouring so much of their heart and soul into the project the two are inseparable. Throughout the film, they living through a great spiritual cataclysm. They must rediscover themselves and their band to emerge from the creative stagnation and fear they’re living. They realize that they must risk the survival of the entire enterprise in order to save it.
In this sense, Metallica’s greatest challenge throughout the movie is learning to live with a new James Hetfield. His drastic transformation throughout the film upends the band. Early in the film James, after quarreling with his band mates over creative differences, enters rehab. Throughout his absence the band struggles to come to terms both with James’ absence and the uncertainty that entails. When James returns after nearly a year, he’s a changed man; the future of the band is no more certain. James, commenting on his first day post-rehab playing with the band says,
“I was afraid to pick up a guitar, and fearful of what would happen. Would I not like it? Would I love it? Would I not be able to write anything cool? Would I write just recovery stuff?”
Had he changed so much in rehab that Metallica was no longer a part of him? Undoubtedly the rest of the band shares his trepidation.
The film's second half covers the band’s gradual reorienting from their legacy to their future. It’s not a smooth journey. In particular, tension emerges around James’ increased focus on his personal life and health. But it is through this tension that much emerges. As the band works together to gain a better understanding of the new situation, something new starts to form. They begin to trust in each other, and perhaps more importantly, in the creative process. They begin to believe that stepping into the darkness all around them will lead them somewhere beautiful. Instead of focusing on the fear that they experience, they begin to use the fear as inspiration.
There’s a major turning point in the movie where we see light at the end of the tunnel. The members of Metallica are forced to record a set of inauthentic promotions for radio. They realize that while it compromises their artistic integrity not recording these promotions will anger a massive radio network. The Metallica from earlier on in the movie might have faced this situation with resignation. The band at this point is, instead, able to channel the experience into creativity. This experience leads them to the following lyrics in the song Sweet Amber:
“Wash your back, so you won’t stab mine. Get in bed with your own kind.”
For the first time in the film, the band revels in the creative process. They are excited. They’re all smiles. Lars comments, “Kirk stopped reading and I stopped sulking."
Despite the many challenges to come, for the rest of the film the band pulses with creative energy. By the end of the film, when the album is complete, Metallica ends up with a product that all of its members are proud of. As they’re packing up to embark on their tour to promote the new album, Lars says,
“You can make something that’s aggressive and fucked up with positive energy between the people creating it.”
By stepping into the unknown, the members Metallica have proven to themselves that they’ve got a future. They’ve created something original in the process.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster shows that living life is a process. It takes months of self-reflection, conversation, conflict, and action for the members of Metallica to adjust to a new reality. We can see that it’s not a rational decision that the members of the band make to improve things. Instead, it’s a deep and unconscious change which alters their perception of the reality around them. Rather than focusing on the darkness and uncertainty all around them, they trust the process as they grope around in search of their next great album. At the start of the film, the members of Metallica only see drudgery in the future. By the end of the film they see a new challenge to push their creative abilities. Where the uncertainty of the world once provoked anxiety, anger, and fear, it now elicits inspiration and excitement. Through the course of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the members of the band stared long and hard into the darkness, and instead of getting lost, they found themselves. They found Metallica again.