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MOVIE REVIEW

Unflinching portrait finds unintentionally funny side of Metallica

Happy rock bands are all alike; every unhappy rock band is unhappy in its own way. Such might have been Tolstoy's response to "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," the overlong but startling heavy metal-therapy documentary opening today.

When codirectors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky ("Paradise Lost") started filming the massively popular metal quartet in 2001, no one expected more than a nice little making-of-the-new-album movie. Right off the bat, though, the air was heavy with repressed venom. If you've seen the Beatles documentary "Let It Be," you know what four men who are heartily sick of one another look like, and in 2001, Metallica had been recording twice as long as the Fab Four.

Bassist Jason Newsted had just quit, and the two primary engines of the group, lead singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, were at each other's throats. As Berlinger and Sinofsky film, Ulrich wants to know whether the cameras will spoil the group's intimacy in the studio. "What intimacy?" growls Hetfield.

Things get so bad that their management company hires a rock 'n' roll therapist -- excuse me, "performance-enhancement coach" -- named Phil Towle for $40,000 a month. His job is to get Hetfield and Ulrich to talk about their "fear response." Hetfield's response to that is to shoot a few bears in Alaska over the weekend, pick a fight with his drummer, then disappear into a substance-abuse program for the better part of a year.

When Hetfield returns, he talks of being "in a whole different place," that place apparently being where raging control freaks hang out. Not only does he insist that the band only work on new material four hours a day but that the others can't even listen to the tracks in his absence. All told, it's remarkable a new album even got made, but there it is: the appropriately titled "St. Anger" (2003). A lot of fans hated it. Those fans may look on this film as fly-on-the-wall melodrama, even though "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" is best approached in a spirit of generous comic disbelief. This is because other people's therapy will always look ridiculous. The laughs come from various sources: the disconnect between Metallica's storied rock 'n' roll rage -- their 1983 debut was called "Kill 'Em All" -- and the squishy language of recovery in which Towle coaches them, the way Ulrich shyly brags about his million-dollar art collection yet reverts to an angry kid around his dour Euro-hippie dad, the scene in which the sweet, dull lead guitarist Kirk Hammett says he tries to "be an example of being egoless to the other guys" and in that instant truly becomes Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls.

You don't even blame Berlinger and Sinofsky for staying too long at the fair -- the film clocks in at an unnecessary two hours and 20 minutes -- because they stumble here across a universal physical law of modern American pop culture. What begins as a blurt of unfeigned youthful anarchy must always decay into a pose of unfeigned youthful anarchy -- and God, or Phil Towle, help the artist who lets the pose slip in public.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Directed by: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Starring: Metallica (James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo), Phil Towle, Bob Rock
At: Copley Place, Kendall Square, Embassy Cinema
Running time: 139 minutes
Unrated (language, alcohol abuse)
***1/2

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