At what point does living out your wildest fantasies become a huge pain in the ass? That’s always what I wonder when re-watching Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s amazing 2004 Metallica documentary [and this week’s Cinessential-certified must-watch] Some Kind of Monster, which is easily the least romantic movie ever made about rock superstardom.

Of course the gentleman headbangers of Metallica need no introduction. Formed in L.A. and settled in the Bay Area in the early 1980s, Metallica has—over the course of its 30-year career—easily lapped Black Sabbath to become the most prominent heavy metal band of all time, and for many [white, male, adolescent] an almost elemental fact of everyday life. Metallica is practically a public utility. Open the pipes; let Metallica drip out. Read the ingredients on a box of Kraft macaroni; there’s Metallica. Spread Metallica on your toast. You get the idea.

But Metallica differs from most super-huge rock bands in a few key ways. Their appeal is built on compact, immediate relatability, not alluring inscrutability. They may be ugly and mean, but listening to Metallica’s music it’s easy to at least imagine that the band is on your side—a denim-clad street gang ready to jump to your defense at the drop of a guitar pick. The reason young men keep finding and loving Metallica year after year, decade after decade is because they personify [and sonically encapsulate] the cheap fraternity of dirtbag youth—but what happens when Metallica becomes rich, old, and complacent? Basically, Some Kind of Monster is about the fact that no early-1980s heavy metal band was ever meant to get this big or last this long. But somehow, Metallica did. 

As the film picks up, its early 2001 and the band is dutifully mounting efforts to make a new album of original material in several years—but why? The impression we get from Monster’s early scenes is because it’s simply their job and nothing more. Also, by 2001 “Metallica” isn’t just a collection of four [really, truly horrible-looking] individuals—it’s a ginormous business employing hundreds of hardworking managers, roadies, lawyers, guitar techs, and [presumably] mullet archivists. Like, Metallica has articles of incorporation. So there’s an obligation there, plus [I’m guessing] a terrifying lack of ideas on the band’s part about what else they could possibly be doing instead.

So even with my extremely limited firsthand knowledge of success, I can totally imagine just how cage-like this particular gilded cage might feel. Watching Monster, you get the sense that the band—chiefly drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett, and frontman James Hetfield—don’t particularly like each other or the music they’re playing. After all, how many 40-year-olds still hang out with the same dudes, doing the same thing that they did when they were 19? Imagining Metallica never took off, what would each member’s relationship with heavy metal be as of the documentary’s early-2000s present? My guess: Hetfield would still listen to metal while vaping and tinkering on budget hot-rods, but he probably wouldn’t play anymore; Ulrich wouldn’t have even thought about heavy metal music in probably about 15 years, working instead as a sleazy luxury-brands wholesaler; and Hammett would probably be a Lyft driver with $80 worth of unused Guitar Center gift cards hurtling toward expiration and a DVR full of The Walking Dead.

What makes Some Kind of Monster so remarkable is watching how these very normal, very flawed people struggle to reconcile their celebrity privilege with a profound [but totally understandable] lack of enthusiasm or inspiration. And to get out of this funk, the members of Metallica do what any languishing adult professional might: they go to therapy.

When Monster was released, many people latched on to the therapy aspect of the film and singled it out for easy mockery. But what’s the alternative? Watching a bunch of middle-aged men still raging at each other like a bunch of Valspar-huffing teens? Sure, the sight of Puppet-meister Hetfield with fingers thoughtfully tented, puzzling out advanced communication strategy at the behest of the band’s turtleish psychotherapist is inherently comic and a little sad, but it’s more tolerable on every level than the alternative.

Some Kind of Monster is one of the best documentaries of the 21st century—not for any degree of formal invention or social revelation, but for its plain illustration that over the long arc of human physiology, time reduces us all to compromised version of ourselves. Is it better to burn out or fade away? Well, what if there’s a third option: to just move steadily forward? The only alternative is [wait for it] … san-i-tarium!

Here's what you'll see this week:

  • Related Review of Metallica's new album Hardwired... to Self-Destruct
  • A further defense that Metallica should have disbanded in the 1980s
  • Filmography of director Joe Berlinger
  • Streaming recs of great rock docs
  • And more!