There’s a shot in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster that may or may not be a sly joke by the filmmakers. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett sits quietly, as is his wont throughout the film, during one of the many moments of tension between drummer Lars Ulrich and lead James Hetfield. Hammett is reading a magazine; on the cover are the Rolling Stones, the band that won’t quit despite the fact that they’ve aged and earned their way out of “rocker” status, their band hasn’t had a consistent line-up in decades, and their heyday as a popular phenomenon has passed.

By 2004, as this documentary testifies to but can’t admit outright, much the same was true for the world’s largest metal band. The filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky began following the band in 2001 as it embarked on its first album after bassist Jason Newstead left the band. They edited the thousands of hours of footage they captured over two and half years into a still-overlong 2 hour 20 minute documentary that shows a band creatively coasting on the inertia of their earlier success. This might not have been the intent behind the film, but this Metallica fan understands Some Kind of Monster as a portrait of a band that should have broken up half a decade earlier, that is staying together for the money.

As the film shows, the production of the album became 2003’s St. Anger was a troubled one: Newstead’s ouster left producer Bob Rock filling in on bass, recording had to be paused for nearly a year while Hetfield sought treatment for alcoholism, the interpersonal tensions in the band had led them to hire a full-time group therapist—and all this in addition to the problem plaguing the band for years: Lars Ulrich is a pedantic dick [and semi-secretly not a very good drummer]. 

In his ostentatious collection of art he views as a capital investment [“Some people like to put their money in banks; I put it on my wall”], his unceasing childish pouts [defiantly doodling while the rest of the band workshops lyrics], his extreme solipsism [“It’s not about what he says—it’s about what I feel” he says while discussing the post-rehab schedule of his bandmate and supposed lifelong friend], his fragile ego [he admits that he’s upset that the venue for Newstead’s new band’s show isn’t a tiny hole-in-the-wall], and his constant gum-smacking, the Lars of Some Kind of Monster makes a case for himself as the ultimate villain of rock-n-roll. 

Hetfield doesn’t come off much better. As the lead of the band entering its 20th year of mainstream success, he is clearly used to getting his way and expecting people to follow along. Much of the film is about the clash of egos between these two original members of the band. They passively aggressively snipe at each other; they erect boundaries that make it impossible to function as a band [Hetfield is not allowed to comment on Ulrich’s drumming, Ulrich cannot comment on guitars or lyrics]; they allow their creative differences to become personal accusations. Ulrich seems to intentionally wreck a song because he doesn’t like the simplicity of the guitar riff. [The most difficult part of this film, emotionally speaking, is when you as a viewer agree with Lars Ulrich. Ugh.] You might expect the film to show them eventually rising above these petty differences, but there is no crowning moment of triumph, no clear creative breakthrough or return to glory. The band stumbles to the finish line of the album’s release, bickering the whole while. 

Hetfield does seem to vanquish many personal demons, mostly [understandably] off-screen. But even the reformed Hetfield bristles at the thought of not being in complete control. Post-rehab, he can only work four hours a day, and nobody is allowed to listen to what they’ve recorded between sessions. He complains that it makes him feel like when he shows up, decisions have already been made, that the band’s course has been chosen in his absence.

“Well,” Hammett uncharacteristically pipes up at this point, “that’s just like the last fifteen years … for me.” If Ulrich is the villain, Hammett emerges as the film’s hero, the only member of Metallica with an ego approximating normal size. “I’ve always been very comfortable with my role in the band,” Hammett tells the filmmakers at one point, a statement you can’t imagine either Hetfield or Ulrich ever uttering. Soft-spoken, unpretentious, and uncontentious, the lead guitarist would be the band’s anchor if anybody paid attention to him. 

The film gives you the sense that although Hammett had been in the band since 1983 and has contributed to some of Metallica’s best work [1986’s Master of Puppets, perhaps their best album, is the first to feature Hammett’s input on the songs], the two founding members have never quite accepted him as a full partner. Indeed, Some Kind of Monster features so many instances of the other members not responding to his comments or addressing their response to someone else, that I’m now operating on the theory that Kirk Hammett is a spectral entity only fans can perceive.

Hetfield and even Ulrich deserve some degree of sympathy; one’s perspective and ego are the least of the things than can be twisted by two decades of fame. Metallica’s motivation and ambition are also of course affected by success, the transmogrification of a project into a brand. One theme of the film—of the lives of the bandmates—is that “Metallica” has by 2001 become a force that overwhelms any one of them, even all three of them. What Some Kind of Monster reveals is that the band’s problems are facilitated by the gobs of money underlying the Metallica project. They can afford to rent recording space almost indefinitely, to work only four hours a day while renting that space, to put down tracks with intentionally garbage beats and argue about them for hours afterward, to pay $40,000 a month for a group therapist. 

In the 1980s Metallica channeled the tensions of hyper-masculine band life into aggressive heavy metal with speeding, crunchy riffs punctuated by blazing solos, into eight-minute songs with complex, syncopated rhythms. In 2003 with the help of their therapist they “accomplish” the feat of making “aggressive music with positive energy”—and songs that don’t have too many guitar solos for today’s fans. The resulting music, as Ulrich accuses Hetfield’s guitar playing of at one point, is very “stock,” a passive-aggressive way of saying, “simplistic, nü-metal-redolent, and creatively bankrupt.”