I’m a both a musician and a filmmaker, so I’m extra-picky about music documentaries. This one stands as one of the best visual representations I’ve ever seen of what it’s like to be a musician.
Sure, it’s shot on video, so don’t expect the glorious black-and-white photography of U2’s Rattle and Hum or the lush richness of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Sure, the camera is often wobbly. But what director Adam Dubin does so well in this piece is capture the intricate details of recording an album, in Part 1. The setting was ripe for such exploration: This was shot during the crucial period when Metallica, then known as one of the most uncompromising bands in music, was first paired up with ace producer Bob Rock, known both for his crystalline productions and his rock-hard stubbornness. The ensuing conflict among band members and producer makes for endlessly fascinating viewing. Part 1 exhaustively explores every aspect of recording Metallica’s eponymous ‘Black Album’ (obviously, you’ll get much more out of this documentary if you know the album well). Highlights include Kirk Hammett’s frustrating search for a solo to “The Unforgiven”; the battle between a sore-throated James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich; and a vocal session where you become intensely aware of just how much editing is required to put together one perfect lead vocal take. If you love music but have never immersed in this process, it’s extremely illuminating — it points out to you how the music comes into being. Plus you get three videos — the casual studio-performance piece “Nothing Else Matters”; “The Unforgiven”, a beautifully photographed expressionistic piece under director Matt Mahurin’s lyrical, languid treatment; and the classic “Enter Sandman”, a manic romp which stands as director Wayne Isham’s crowning achievement.
Part 2 is a little more for fans. With its numerous live performances and less coherent structure, this part appeals more to longtime fans of Metallica who want to see how the band works when the scope of its fanbase suddenly increased tenfold. There are still fascinating bits even for casual perusers: The tensions between the Metallica/Guns N’ Roses camps when the two bands joined up for a massive, trouble-ridden tour; an after-show meeting where the Metallica members discuss changes and critique one another; and backstage footage from the Freddie Mercury tribute concert. The two official videos, “Sad but True” and “Wherever I May Roam”, are passable, with near-interchangeable footage and a distinct lack of character.
I used to put on my old VHS copy of Part 1 every couple of months just to delve into the terrific in-studio interactions of Bob Rock and Metallica. The release of both volumes of this video on DVD was a pleasant surprise to me, and anybody who wants to know more about the process of being a professional musician (and star) should check this one out. After seeing the amount of painstaking work put into each stage of the band’s music, you might be less inclined to crucify Metallica for fighting against Napster.