Rock & roll, even at its most primal, taps a great many states of feeling -- joy, rage, lust, despair -- but Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is driven by one that has never been on display, at least to this degree, in a rock documentary: fear. Early in 2001, the members of Metallica, the most successful heavy metal band of its time (90 million albums sold since 1983), dragged their guitars, drums, and recording equipment into a makeshift studio at the old Presidio military post in San Francisco. They were out to create their first album in five years, and they agreed to let directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (whose 1996 doc ''Paradise Lost'' featured Metallica's music) film the process. What might have been a glorified MTV special, at least had the recording sessions gone more smoothly, turns out instead to be a headbanger's ''Let It Be.'' An unprecedented caught-on-the-fly look at the creative fire, arduous labor, and thorny power dynamics that drive a veteran band, ''Some Kind of Monster'' is one of the most revelatory rock portraits ever made.
The Metallica sound, a fast and thrumming doomsday rush, isn't exactly good-time party music -- it's metal to thrash your demons by -- and before the sessions even begin, a sense of dread hovers in the air. The band's bass player has left to join a new group, and Metallica's two leaders, guitarist and singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, are no longer the scruffy bad boys they once were. They're both 40 years old, with lives and families and a short-fused history of collaboration and rivalry. Hetfield, with his acne scars, punkish dab of beard, and respectable haircut, is a walking oxymoron -- a handsome and articulate but visibly tormented man, his sonorous speaking voice counterbalanced by the mad-dog howl of his lyrics and singing. Ulrich, by contrast, is as baby-faced as the young Paul McCartney, with a cheerful manner that masks a prickly ego of insecurity and anger. (He changes his hair more often than Hillary Clinton did in 1994.)
To ease the collective anxiety, the band has hired a therapist -- mild, bespectacled Phil Towle, who generally oversees group counseling for sports teams. The prospect of rock's fastest, fiercest, and most brooding metal band learning to embrace the healing homilies of group therapy may sound like a joke out of Spi¨al Tap, but ''Some Kind of Monster,'' while it has plenty of laughs, takes Metallica just as seriously as the band takes itself. In the middle of a fight, Hetfield stalks out, slams the door, and enters a rehab program for alcoholism and ''other'' addictions. When he returns close to a year later, he's like an ex–outlaw biker in search of his soul, yet there's a deeper drama at work than one man's recovery from addiction. Can Hetfield abandon the rock & roll lifestyle -- and still make great rock & roll?
In its 2 hours and 20 minutes, ''Some Kind of Monster'' takes more than its share of digressive detours. Some are hilarious, like Ulrich's auctioning off of his Basquiat-centered art collection, and some are touching, like Hetfield's trip to his daughter's ballet class. What ties each moment together is the fascinating and emotional tale of rock and its heroes growing up yet trying, against the odds, to stay genuine. In the end, ''Metallica'' does. The surprise is how much of yourself you may see in their journey.