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DVD Review: Metallica: Some Kind of Monster/Backbeat/X: The Unheard Music

By Glenn Abel

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photo You don't have to like Metallica's music to love "Some Kind of Monster."

What started out as a documentary about a rock album turned into a compelling psychodrama as the 20-year-old band imploded before the cameras -- more heavy introspection than heavy metal.

The filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky of "Brother's Keeper" fame, caught lightning in a bottle and had the talent to deploy it.

"This is not a film about Metallica," drummer Lars Ulrich says in the DVD extras. "This is a film about relationships."

Paramount Home Entertainment's double-disc release of "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" (retail $29.99) should see plenty of churn from film buffs who have been hearing all of the above since the movie opened last year's Sundance fest -- yet couldn't quite see themselves in a cinema packed with Metallica enthusiasts.

The DVDs deliver more than 10 hours of extras, including 40 deleted scenes. Fans should be psyched. The finished movie went light on music -- the men of Metallica came across like they were building a Hummer instead of recording a work of music -- but the extras get back to the rock 'n' roll. "That's what DVDs are for," one of the directors says as he explains why a terrific in-studio scene with rapper Ja Rule was cut.

Anyone puzzled by the massive popularity of these fortysomething rockers should behold the music video for the song "Some Kind of Monster." It's doubly powerful after watching the movie, in which the band struggles to create the tune. More ass-kicking ensues as Metallica plays "Frantic" at the Fillmore, another extra.

Audio (Dolby Digital 5.1) and images (full-frame, as shot) are solid for a documentary shot on tape.

In the beginning, "Monster" was to be largely promotional, about the making of the album "St. Anger." The project was supposed to run about six weeks; it lasted 2 1/2 years.

The band hired Berlinger and Sinofsky after the filmmakers used their music in another docu. Filming began just after the band's longtime bass player quit. The remaining three members went for each other's throats.

"This (movie) could never be planned. ... We never knew what this was going to be," says the band's frontman, James Hetfield, who entered rehab halfway through filming. (MTV merrily dubbed the band Alcohollica.)

Taking a cue from sports teams, the disintegrating band hired therapist Phil Towle to deal with "20 years of hatred." Towle seems a Yoko Ono-like figure throughout much of the film, clinging to his $40,000-a-month gig, but the extras show him capably earning some of that pay. More adult supervision came from long-suffering producer Bob Rock, the film's only heroic figure.

The DVD's "Festivals and Premieres" section follows the band and filmmakers as they proudly roll out the "Monster" movie. Longtime collaborators Berlinger and Sinofsky say filming all that group therapy hit close to home. "It did wonders for our partnership," Sinofsky tells a fest Q&A session.

The co-directors' commentary is richly detailed, about as good as it gets. They speak of the effect that shooting 1,600 hours of video had on their subjects. "We subscribe to the Heisenberg theory of filmmaking" -- the presence of the cameras acting as catalyst for the human drama. At one point, they were convinced they were filming the musicians' last days as a band.

The band's commentary, recorded last year, starts out slow, borderline Spinal Tap, but morphs into an interesting reflection on having cameras record your life for two years. And, yes, they seem to get along just fine.

The Beatles also had a film crew on hand for their disintegration, resulting in the notoriously depressing 1970 documentary "Let It Be."

Ten years before that, the lads learned hard lessons in band politics while working the bars of Hamburg, Germany. That's the backdrop for Iain Softley's fine backstage drama "Backbeat" (1994), another Sundance showpiece.

Universal released the title in summer 2003 and returns with a "collector's edition" at the same price ($19.98). The main upgrades are Dolby 5.1 audio and an audio interview with Astrid Kirchherr, the German photographer who took the Beatles' first publicity shots.

The anamorphic widescreen images (1.85:1) seem about the same as on the 2003 disc, good but sometimes grainy. Other extras, duped from the old DVD, include a director's commentary, a pair of deleted scenes and various interviews that tend to repeat material.

Director Softley ("K-PAX") tells how he spent six years researching and writing the project, inspired by stylish photos he saw of Kirchherr and her lover Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatles' first bass player. The "Backbeat" script was based on her recollections.

"Everybody knows about Lennon and McCartney, but not many people knew about Lennon and Sutcliffe," Softley says. He insists the Everyman movie is not about the Beatles but the love triangle of John Lennon, Sutcliffe and Kirchherr.

Sutcliffe (played by Stephen Dorff) was Lennon's best pal from Liverpool, a leaden bassist but a gifted painter. "The band never meant anything to him," Kirchherr says. He played "to please John."

Like the seldom-seen 1991 film "The Hours and Times," the film features actor Ian Hart as an acerbic Lennon. And, like "Hours," it questions Lennon's sexuality. "What is it between you two?" the film's Paul McCartney asks Lennon of Sutcliffe.

"Backbeat" takes the time to let its bogus Beatles perform entire numbers, mostly soul covers. The real music came from a "grunge" supergroup put together for the film by producer Don Was. The new 5.1 audio sounds sensational, with a vibrant and musical surround stage.

This might not be a Beatles film, but there's an undeniable thrill when, late in the story, McCartney switches to his trademark German bass and the fabled front three wails on "Please Mr. Postman." The film's downer ending gets drowned out by the joys of "Twist and Shout" and the promise of Beatlemania.

X holds the title of quintessential L.A. rock band, brushing past such contenders as the Doors (too psychedelic) and Love (too ephemeral).

W.T. Morgan's jittery "X: The Unheard Music," finally surfacing on DVD, captures the band in the mid-1980s, standing tall atop the ashes of the city's punk scene.

Morgan makes the most of the band's Hollywood vibe. Stylized segments feature guitarist Billy Zoom (part Buck Owens and part Gorgeous George); singer Exene Cervenka (a rag doll with Bette Davis eyes); and singer-bassist John Doe and drummer D.J. Bonebrake (both blessed with leading-man looks).

"Unheard Music" covers some band biography ("Billy put an ad in the Recycler ...") but mostly it's X performing amid a blitzkrieg of images that range from Edsel ads to death squads shooting up El Salvador. A ghostly night scene shows a house transported across a freeway bridge as the title song plays. How L.A. How X.

The 1986 film, shot in 16mm, looks decent aside from persistent speckling. DTS and stereo audio options sound fine, but the Dolby 5.1 had a weird effect that sent vocals to the rear speakers. The Image Entertainment DVD offers no extras ($19.99).

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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